Syria's Al-Hol camp: Stories between two fires
Al-Hol was once a humanitarian camp, designed to provide safe, temporary accommodation and humanitarian services to people displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq. However, the nature of the camp has long deviated from this purpose and it has grown increasingly into an unsafe open-air prison.
There are many different stories of how people found themselves detained at Al-Hol camp. Below are testimonies from the people detained there collected by Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF).
Qasim*, one of the first staff members from MSF to visit the camp in 2019
In February 2019 I was confronted with something I had never seen before, even amid the Syrian war. I replay the image in my thoughts as I remember entering Al Hol detention camp and seeing hundreds of people with gunshot wounds, amputated legs, and women and children dumped from a truck, dying for help.
Thousands were arriving every day, as MSF tried to triage patients and provide medical care or refer them to other health facilities as needed. This was during the winter season, so near freezing. During this time fathers were put in prisons and children were taken from their mothers - only those under 12 years old were allowed to go to the camp.
*Name changed to protect identity.
The world must take action to save a whole generation who only know trauma, hunger and abuse... Growing up in northeast Syria makes me realise that we reached adulthood and adult mindsets before our time. We missed out on childhood, and teenage years. If I hadn’t lived here and the war didn’t happen, I would probably be in another country, travelling; that was my plan as a child to travel around the world. But freedom is an unknown feeling here. Freedom is a luxury that I’ve never known…
Fatma, mother of a 9-year-old taken to Al-Hol camp after finding herself in the wrong place, at the wrong time
We couldn’t stay in the city because the coalition was bombing everything and, if we stayed behind, the coalition forces would accuse us of being from the Islamic State, so we were forced to move with the Islamic State. And finally, here we are [in Al Hol], and we are still not safe. We thought we would be safe here, but no.
Mostly I worry about my nine-year-old boy and that the security forces will take him when he gets older. There are a lot [of mothers] whose boys were taken off to prison by the security forces when they turned 11 or 12, and they cry every day.
We are between two fires: the security forces and the extremists. It’s a kind of prison. There is no freedom here.
We don’t know why they are killing people, and we can’t lock our door – we don’t even have a door! They say they only kill the spies who are going to the security forces, but this is not true because sometimes there are killings for no reason at all.
One night several people entered our tent and started to shoot at my brother. First one shot and then another shot to his head to kill him. He was 16 years old. Why did they kill my brother? Then they put a gun to my head and pushed my mother, who had been trying to protect my brother. The next day they called us and they threatened to kill our whole family. The authorities didn’t come to investigate; they didn’t even come to take his body.
Dr Reza Eshagian, Medical Team Leader at Al-Hol camp in 2021
This poor girl [patient needing dialysis treatment] had already lost her parents, so she was an orphan in this prison-like camp at the age of nine.
Another woman in the camp had offered to help take care of her. Every time she was unwell she would take away this volunteer's life, to provide care which was already draining for her in terms of she had her kids. But then the child would have to go get a high level of care by herself. She didn’t speak Arabic and didn’t understand what was happening to her.
The care that you require for dialysis and multiple testing, is scary for any child, it needs a lot of psychosocial support. Imagine getting a big line in your neck for dialysis and being poked for blood. And every time she gets referred she doesn’t know why or when she will have to go back.
Many times when we tried to refer her, the referral wouldn’t go through. There are multiple steps required to get a referral through, it’s easy for it to fall apart. The level of securitisation makes this very challenging to push through. And in her case, it’s often left multiple times where she did not get dialysis and she was often weeks without it. It was quite heart-wrenching to see someone who had no understanding of what was going on have to go through that level of suffering.
Another example, we had a newborn who was abandoned in the camp. She was malnourished, and dehydrated and was found and brought to us. So here’s an absolute newborn who has been abandoned by her parents. We resuscitated the child, we treated her for her malnutrition. She did very well. She was this beautiful, happy baby, and so we also approached other local NGOs and the local authorities, asking if she could be granted freedom from the camp and be adopted by a family outside of the camp and they strictly said no, this child must be raised in this camp.
Mostafa, Humanitarian Advisor at MSF
People living in the camp continue to live in difficult conditions exposed to violence and exploitation. Keeping people indefinitely and without any access due to process is a shortsighted measure that doesn’t address the situation of ISIS and other armed groups.
The situation can’t be addressed without addressing the needs of this group and without providing the necessary protection, access to legal processes and return to their countries where they can be reunited with their families and communities.
MSF would like to acknowledge the many people who contributed to this story. To our staff in Syria, and elsewhere, and especially to the people of Al-Hol, we would like to sincerely thank you for sharing your time with us. For more information about this story, and our work in Syria, please visit MSF.org