Syrian Children Freeze to Death. Bombs Rain Down. And ‘Nobody Cares.’


Ahmad Yassin Leila and his infant daughter Iman, who froze to death.

The Syrian government’s assault on a rebel-held province has created one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of a brutal nine-year war.

REYHANLI, Turkey — The baby wasn’t moving. Her body had gone hot, then cold. Her father rushed her to a hospital, going on foot when he could not find a car, but it was too late.

At 18 months, Iman Leila had frozen to death.

In the half-finished concrete shell that had been home since they ran for their lives across northwest Syria, the Leila family had spent three weeks enduring nighttime temperatures that barely rose above 20.

“I dream about being warm,” Iman’s father, Ahmad Yassin Leila, said a few days later by phone. “I just want my children to feel warm. I don’t want to lose them to the cold. I don’t want anything except a house with windows that keeps out the cold and the wind.”

Syria’s uprising began in a flare of hope almost exactly nine years ago. Now, amid one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of the war, some of those who chanted for freedom and dignity in 2011 want only to ward off the winter cold.

Already the effective winner of Syria’s civil war, President Bashar al-Assad is closer than ever to retaking Syria’s last rebel-held territory, Idlib Province in northwest Syria, a milestone that will clinch his victory even as it deepens his people’s suffering. Over the past three months, his forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, have intensified their assault on the province, driving nearly a million residents toward the border with Turkey.

Many are living in tents or sleeping out in the open in the freezing cold. Iman Leila was just one of nine children who died of exposure in recent weeks.

The exodus is the largest of a war that has displaced 13 million people and taken hundreds of thousands of lives, and ranks among the largest in recent history, second only to the flight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar in 2017. With about three million residents trapped between a sealed Turkish border to the north and bombs and shells thundering up from the south and east, the crisis has the potential to grow far worse as the government battles to reclaim all of Syria.

“These are people who are trying to take the hardest decisions of their lives in conditions that are out of their hands,” said Max Baldwin, the North Syria program director for Mercy Corps. “The level of intensity, the fact that you’ve got the Turkish military here, the front line moving there, they’re continuing to target hospitals — it’s creating a level of fear and uncertainty that’s been a huge challenge for everyone. And this could get worse.”

Nearly a million Syrians have fled toward the border with Turkey over the past three months. Many are living in makeshift tents or in the open. Credit...Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

The fleeing Syrians scrabble for safety in camps in the rural countryside near the Turkish border or in towns that may be bombed at any moment. The luckiest shelter in rented or abandoned buildings, many of which lack doors or windows. The less fortunate sleep in tents. Tens of thousands huddle on sidewalks or under olive trees, the branches draped with plastic tarps, blankets or nothing.

The town of Ariha, in Idlib Province, was hit by 27 airstrikes in one day, a former resident said. Credit...Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

Those who can afford it buy fuel for heaters, if any fuel is to be had. Those who cannot wrap their children in plastic sheets and fill any bag they can find with hot water to thaw their children’s beds at night. When they run out of wood, they burn clothes and shoes.

Some fled hauling pieces of their old homes — like doors and window frames — hoping to improve their temporary shelters or to rebuild someday. Now those, too, go into the fire.

One family that tried to keep a small fire in their tent this month ended up burning it down as they slept, killing two children.

“There are a lot of other people dying,” Mr. Leila said. “Nobody cares.”

Like hundreds of thousands of others, the Leilas had already fled from elsewhere and ended up in Idlib as a last resort.

Nine years ago, Mr. Leila joined the peaceful protests against the brutal authoritarianism of President Bashar al-Assad, which erupted into armed uprising and war. When Mr. Assad’s forces recaptured the Leilas’ hometown, the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, two years ago, the family accepted the government’s offer of safe passage to Idlib rather than face retribution.

More than a million civilians from all parts of Syria have done the same thing, many having already moved multiple times. They have doubled Idlib’s population, turning it into a crowded stew of transplanted dissidents and their families and an array of jihadist and rebel groups who exploited the chaos to seize political control.

These groups — dominated by the Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — have given the Syrian government cover to justify its onslaught in the name of counterterrorism.

The displaced Syrians depend on international aid, but with much of Idlib under fire, aid workers have found it difficult to reach those in need. Credit...Burak Kara/Getty Images

People who evacuated when the Idlib offensive began last spring filled up the available buildings near the Turkish border, leaving those who fled in recent weeks to cram into overcrowded camps that flood with every rain. Even those with money cannot find tents now.

Some have stitched together plastic tarps. Others have built huts out of grapevines.

With much of the area under fire, aid organizations cannot reach civilians, or take hours to deliver supplies to camps just a few miles away because the roads are so jammed. Aid workers, volunteers and contractors who supply water, blankets and food are fleeing their own hom