Camps of northern Syria drenched in darkness

Solar panels in Killi camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) - 08 January 2021 (Enab Baladi / Yousef Ghuraibi)

Solar panels in Killi camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) - 08 January 2021 (Enab Baladi / Yousef Ghuraibi)

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Idlib – Yousef Ghuraibi 

“It was very dark,” Badra, a displaced Syrian woman in her fifties, recounted to Enab Baladi the conditions in which she stumbled, fell on the ground, and broke her leg, one night after she left her tent.

The night of Badra’s injury is one of many dark nights in the camp of Maarrat Misrin in the northern countryside of Idlib province. The camp inhabitants in northwestern Syria have become accustomed to darkness without adapting to its dangerous consequences.

The dangerous road to communal latrines 

Thirty-something-year-old Nofa al-Yasin lives in the al-Anwar camp (ironically, the camp’s Arabic name means the camp of lights) for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the northern Idlib countryside. She talked about the risks women encounter whenever they need to leave their tents after sunset. She said, “It does not feel safe to walk around at night without lighting. One cannot tell his friend from his enemy.” 

Going to the communal latrines, which are 50 meters away from the tents, is a daunting task that requires women and children to walk in groups and wait for each other, al-Yasin said. 

The al-Anwar camp manager, Saleh Abu Amin, called the lack of lighting problem in the camp a tragedy. He said women and children leaving their tents at night are living a terrorizing experience. Their screams can be heard whenever they unexpectedly encounter a cat or a dog in the dark.

Abu Amin pointed out that the camp residents’ suffering increases in winter, as camps become covered in mud and people’s chances of falling and slipping into open pits arise. “In every assessment study for the residents’ needs, we submit lighting proposals; however, donor organizations do not respond, as their main focus is on distributing essential food baskets and bread, ignoring the great need for lighting.”

“The dark and dreadful nights of the al-Anwar camp are similar to those in other camps in the region, according to the al-Tah camp manager, Abdul Salam al-Youssef.

The al-Tah camp residents fear the dark nights, especially women and elderly people. They are afraid of slipping incidents, harassment, and kidnapping, al-Youssef said.

The residents attempted in the last months to light the camp by themselves. Each family was in charge of lighting its tent; however, the residents’ poor financial situations thwarted the project. The cost of lighting each tent costs about 100 USD for rechargeable batteries and LED lights.

Through its program “What is Your Problem?” Enab Baladi surveyed some camp residents’ views in the northern countryside of Idlib.

They complained about the risks of not having public lighting, as they depend on dangerous candles or lighters’ light, which in turn caused various accidents and injuries. The residents cannot afford the costs needed for any possible solution, and their appeals were ignored by the relevant organizations and the responsible authorities.

Enab Baladi reached out to the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), the administrative power in the region, to ask about the efforts and solutions made to resolve the problem of lighting in the camps. Nevertheless, Enab Baladi did not receive an answer.

The problem lies in priority setting

As about three-quarters of the region’s population need relief support, namely food and clean water, charity organizations try to focus on projects other than lighting ones, which are difficult to achieve due to lack of funding, the director of the Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG), Mohammed Hallaj said to Enab Baladi.

All the IDPs’ informal campsites in the region, estimated by hundreds, lack lighting in 90 percent of cases, according to Hallaj, while the percentage is less in the formal camps.

The IDPs in camps of northwestern Syria depend mainly on solar-powered streetlights within each family’s financial ability. In the meantime, the residents lie under the adverse effects of having no lighting, such as their children’s inability to study in the dark, the increase in robberies, and the indirect damage caused by disasters, such as floods, or when ambulances are needed in emergency accidents.

The somewhat “more important” needs are the reason for the lack of interest in camp lighting, the project coordinator at Bonyan Organization Majd Salhab told Enab Baladi. Essential needs, such as sanitation, installation of water networks, and rehabilitation of roads and infrastructure, are given higher priority by the organizations.

Bonyan Organization is currently working on a camp lighting project in Atmeh and Qah areas in the northern Idlib countryside, within the Cash-for-Work (CFW) interventions.

The project includes temporary employment contracts for young people to implement service projects in return for certain wages. The project falls under two sections, the first of which covers the maintenance work of existing solar lamp posts, and the second is based on setting up new ones.

The organization’s team is rehabilitating and installing 239 solar lamp posts, Salhab said. He added that the provided support and awareness level of camp residents, who may sell the solar panels or batteries off the posts due to financial need, make the difference in the project’s success.  

Cash for light

The first phase in lighting camps is done by educating the camps’ inhabitants on the importance of the solar lamp poles and how to keep them safe from vandalism or robbery. Our goal is to make the residents feel as if they are the project owners before setting up the new solar posts or maintaining the old ones, Salhab said. 

Besides setting up the solar posts and protecting them by raising the poles high enough so that no one can climb them, the supporting organizations have to maintain and replace the equipment used when they break down, including lamps, batteries, or solar panels.

Since the early waves of displacement, the camps’ residents have resorted to solar lamps and panels. Hence, organizations did not plan to provide electric power to camps; it was unnecessary and not a priority, according to the Saed Charity Association (SCA) project manager, Obadah Arwani.

Arwani told Enab Baladi that after the expansion of camps and the prolonged duration of most displaced people’s stay, the lighting of camps and public roads became necessary for the safety of vulnerable groups and the camps’ population in general.

He added that the random distribution of campsites in agricultural, mountainous, and remote areas had hampered their lighting and servicing, which, in turn, deprived the camps’ population of stability.

“Donor organizations encourage and prioritize lighting projects; however, the massive needs in the IDP camps caused a shortfall in the funding of such projects,” Arwani said. Out of more than a thousand camps, 80 percent need support, while the provided support remains at minimal levels.

In 2020, the SCA implemented lighting projects in some camps, Arwani said. It installed 150 solar-powered lamp poles. The estimated cost per solar post, according to technical specifications in terms of length and lamp or battery capacity, ranges between 250 and 600 USD.

Syrian people received the year 2021 with a persistent economic crisis and a continuance increase in food prices by 13 percent more than November 2020. Food prices increased by 236 percent compared to December 2019, according to a briefing to the Security Council by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock on 20 January.

The costs for providing basic and emergency services to IDPs amounted to ten billion USD for 2021, excluding the lighting service. The funding gap for providing essential and urgent supplies in northwestern Syria reached 32 million USD.

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