7-Year-Old Dies In Tent Fire In Syrian Refugee Camp

Feb 6, 2019
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we have a story of one person's death among many - the story of a death in a Syrian camp for displaced people. And we should warn you that some people will find this story disturbing. The World Health Organization says dozens of children have died as their families made the journey in the cold to this camp, trying to find shelter and safety. Thousands have been streaming there as the U.S.-led coalition fights ISIS in the area, and some of them are foreigners held there as relatives of ISIS fighters. The cold means they are using kerosene heaters in tents. NPR's Ruth Sherlock was recently there and met a mother who lost her daughter in a fire.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: A woman films on her phone as she runs through the darkness in a refugee camp towards a tent that's caught fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: "Where are they, the woman and her children? Where are they?" she screams over and over in the video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Other refugees try to help. There's a little girl, 7 years old, trapped inside the burning tent, but there's nothing they can do to save her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: We meet the little girl's mother in the camp. It's been just two days since her daughter died, and she seems shell-shocked, hunched over with grief. She says she still hasn't been able to tell her relatives the awful news, and so we agree not to use her or her daughters' names as she tells us what happened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: The night of the fire, she'd felt ill and had gone to lie in the tent that's become the family's home. Her daughter covered her with a blanket and said, Mom, go to sleep. She says she told her children to turn off the kerosene heater, the only source of warmth in the tent, before they slept. She doesn't know exactly what happened next, but she woke in a panic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) I woke up. There was fire all around me, and I was running out of the tent. And my sister came to rescue people.

SHERLOCK: She refers to the other mothers in the refugee camp as her sisters. She grabbed two of her youngest children, an infant and a toddler, and screamed at her 7-year-old to wake up. She went back in for her, but it was too late.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) And when I went back in, I found my daughter. She became a coal, a piece of coal.

SHERLOCK: This mother is Tunisian, one of hundreds of foreign women and children of ISIS members who languish in camps in northeast Syria, with most of their governments showing little interest to bring them home because of their ties to extremists. She also cares for two Belgian children she adopted here in Syria after their parents, who'd joined ISIS, died in the war.

The foreign refugees live in a section of a larger camp that's also home to some 23,000 Syrians fleeing the fighting as the U.S.-led coalition tries to defeat the last remnants of ISIS. The conditions are miserable. When we visit, it pours with rain, and the ground is muddy. Women in burqas get soaked to the skin as they go to collect containers of fuel for their heaters. These winter months are bitterly cold, and kerosene heaters provided by aid workers are often the only way to keep warm. But Mysa Khalaf with the U.N.'s Refugee Agency tells me they can be dangerous.

MYSA KHALAF: This is one of the concerns that we have, is the kerosene, the heaters that are being used inside these tents.

SHERLOCK: This is especially true for people from outside Syria, she says, who aren't familiar with how to use them. Officials couldn't give us data on how often these fires happen, but Khalaf and others say they know of at least three fatalities in the first few weeks of this year alone and of other tent fires where no one died. The Kurdish authorities who oversee the foreigners' camp say they lack the international support to improve the conditions, and the only solution, they say, is for governments to take their citizens back. The mother we talked to is desperate to leave the camp.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says she tried to give her daughter a semblance of a normal life, even arranging tutoring for her. But this is no life, even for animals, she says, let alone for a child. And her daughter always wanted to leave. Maybe, she says, God found her a way out by taking her away. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, northeast Syria.

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