Desperate Syrians huddle among the trees, safe for now

Delil Souleiman
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Displaced Syrians, who fled their hometowns due to clashes between regime forces and the Islamic State (IS) group, prepare food in Kharufiyah, 18 kilometres south of Manbij, on March 4, 2017

Sheltering from the wind under a gnarled olive tree Saturday, young Jumana and her two children are among tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting in northern Syria.

The 25-year-old stirs rice and bulghur wheat into a clay pot, heated by a small fire she has managed to light from damp olive branches on the outskirts of Kharufiyah village in Aleppo province.

"We left our homes with nothing: no fuel, no bread. Our children are starving," she tells AFP, pulling a brown scarf tighter round her face.

At least 30,000 civilians have fled clashes between regime forces and the Islamic State group in the province over the past week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

Many headed to areas around Manbij, a town held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces alliance (SDF).

As the fighting drew near, Jumana and 20 family members fled their jihadist-held home town and trekked some 30 kilometres (20 miles) to Kharufiyah.

"Daesh (IS) was shelling us, the airplanes were hitting us. Our children were terrified. We were barely able to save ourselves," she says.

Although they are now safe, Jumana fears her troubles are far from over.

"They're still scared when they hear air strikes and we can't sleep. There are clouds overhead, it's cold, and when the rain comes we're going to suffer."

- 'This isn't real shelter' -

Dozens of families have sought refuge around Kharufiyah, which is 18 kilometres (11 miles) south of Manbij and has struggled to cope with the influx.

AFP's correspondent saw volunteers from local organisations distribute winter clothing.

But many families have no tents, mattresses or blankets, and huddle underneath trees to stay warm and dry.

A few sheep wander among the tents of those who do have some cover, and many displaced have hung laundry from the olive trees.

Trad al-Mazyad's family was forced to flee from Jub Abyad, a village about 45 kilometres (30 miles) south of Manbij, when "Daesh came to hide among us civilians, and we could no longer bear it".

"Our situation is really bad -- this isn't real shelter," Mazyad says, gesturing at the modest tent he shares with another family.

His children gather around him, their feet caked in mud.

"As you can see, this tent is our kitchen, our bathroom, everything at the same time," he says.

A few metres (yards) away, Ahlam Mohammad is crouched on the floor of another tent, her infant daughter on her hip.

A black scarf covers part of her face, but her exhaustion shines clearly through.

She and her three daughters fled their home in an IS-held village two nights previously, crossing hilly terrain to reach safety.

"We left our house at 9:00 pm, but I have no idea what happened to my husband. People were killed in the fighting, and others left the village in huge numbers," she says.

- 'A nightmare' -

In the chaos of the escape, she lost contact with her husband.

"If my husband is alive, then thank God. If he's dead, may he rest in peace. What else am I supposed to do?" she asks resignedly.

"People just want to live, they just want stability. Sometimes I wish everything we've seen is just a nightmare and that I'll wake up."

Further north, dozens of families could be seen lining up at a checkpoint manned by the Manbij Military Council, the SDF unit that controls the town, to be searched and authorised to enter.

Manbij already hosts "tens of thousands of displaced people that fled previous clashes in the area and are living in difficult circumstances", according to Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Observatory.

"This will make it difficult (for local authorities) to welcome a new wave of displaced people, given their inability to tend to their pressing needs."

Inside the SDF-held town, half a dozen men in civilian clothes and caps bearing the US flag distribute humanitarian aid.

"This is aid from the United States. They are children's clothes," one tells displaced families through an Arabic-speaking translator.

"It's not much, but this is all we have for now. We're here to help civilians as much as we can."