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After Suspected Chemical Attack, Douma Residents Flee To Northern Syria


In northern Syria, refugees from the town of Douma are now being housed in temporary shelters. Remember, Douma is where a suspected chemical weapons attack earlier this month prompted U.S.-led airstrikes against the Syrian government. That was just the beginning of a perilous journey for many from this town, who fled as rebel forces surrendered to the regime. NPR's Ruth Sherlock was able to get over the Turkish border to see where these refugees have ended up.


RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Wow. There's a huge flash of lightning. We're driving through the middle of a thunderstorm in northern Syria, and we're on our way to a refugee camp to meet people that have left Douma.


SHERLOCK: So we've arrived at the refugee camp.

Shall we go over here?


SHERLOCK: Everyone's lining up here to get supplies - just arrived. There's a child in sandals walking through the muddy ground, carrying a bag of juice and water and supplies back to the tent. It's raining hard. There's puddles of water and mud on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: We meet two men who take us back to their tent to talk to their wives.


SHERLOCK: (Speaking Arabic).

Inside the tent, the four women sit huddled together with their small children. They're all young, barely in their 20s, and their faces are drawn and gaunt from years without enough food. They look exhausted and afraid. They agree to talk, but without giving their names.


SHERLOCK: I ask questions with the help of NPR colleague Lama Al-Arian.

The last three years in the - under siege, what was the most difficult thing for them? Was it food? Was it a bombing? Was the most difficult?

LAMA AL-ARIAN, BYLINE: (Speaking Arabic).

SEEMA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "It was all hard," says Seema, who's 19 and wears a bright lilac hijab headscarf - "no food, no electricity, no water."

BAYAN: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Another woman, Bayan, joins in. She hugs her toddler, a little boy, as she speaks.

BAYAN: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "You could go to the pharmacy," she says, "but the shelves were empty. There was food, but it was too expensive."

BAYAN: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says she struggled to feed her child, even a slice of bread. He'd come and say, Mom, I'm hungry, and she couldn't give him anything. He lost weight, and she couldn't get him treatment amid the power outages and airstrikes.


SHERLOCK: All across northern Syria, camps like this one run by Turkey's aid department are filling with people. They arrive in the thousands by the day. It's where survivors of the apparent chemical attack and other residents from Douma have fled to. Seema says billows of poison chlorine gas came into her home.

SEEMA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Bayan was lucky to survive.

AL-ARIAN: And she said, "all I cared about was hugging my children and throwing water on their faces." And she said, "we smelled the chlorine, and then there was also bombs."

SHERLOCK: It was reports of this attack that prompted President Trump to launch airstrikes against the Syrian government this month, but those strikes do little for what the people of Douma need now. For one thing, we spoke with eyewitnesses whose lungs are failing and require medical treatment.


SHERLOCK: And in the longer term, all these refugees have no home.

SEEMA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Seema describes how, after the attack, the rebels who controlled Douma surrendered, and the regime moved in.

BAYAN: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Bayan explains, many of the men are wanted by the government, so they felt they had to flee. The decision tore families apart.

SEEMA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Seema says their parents and other elderly relatives who were less likely to be arrested by the government stayed behind to protect their homes from being seized by regime militias.

BAYAN: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: No more young people in Douma.

When I ask about what they want for the future, they all say the same thing.

SEEMA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: ...To go back to a Douma that is peaceful and safe and not to let their children experience the war they have. For now, though, that's a distant dream. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, northern Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADNAN JOUBRAN'S "THAT MOMENT WHEN...") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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