ATMEH CAMP, Syria (AP) — Turki Abdel Qadir, a burly villager from the northern countryside, fled to this muddy camp amid olive groves three months ago after his 13-year-old daughter Haifa was wounded in the civil war.
Just yards from Syria's border with Turkey, the family lives in one of the camp's typical tents. Eleven people sleep on pads on the floor, surrounding a wood-burning stove with a makeshift chimney. Other tents, no bigger than a small bedroom, hold 30.
Their diet is largely bread, supplemented by vegetables bought with the salary Abdel Qadir earns as a rebel fighter.
"It's a little bit better than death," he said of their living conditions.
The rebel-controlled Atmeh camp houses 16,000 people displaced by the civil war.
But the U.N., the organization best equipped to handle such a large-scale relief effort, is legally barred from operating there because the camp is inside Syrian territory.
That leaves the job to smaller organizations that can only provide a fraction of the residents' needs.
The inability of aid agencies to do anything more for Atmeh, let alone for the hundreds of thousands of other Syrians living in even more dire conditions in less visible locations, has come to stand for the ineffectiveness of the international community in dealing with the Syrian crisis.
Nearly two years of fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad has left an estimated 3 million people displaced within Syria and hundreds of thousands more have fled the country to seek refuge in neighboring states.
U.N. resolutions prevent the UNHCR, the world's main refugee agency, from delivering aid inside Syria.
Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, said in a news conference Tuesday that the group is bound by a 1991 General Assembly resolution that "makes it absolutely clear that in delivering humanitarian aid, you have to seek the consent of the affected country."
"The government of Syria has made it very clear that they will not accept materials coming over from the border with Turkey. So without a separate Security Council resolution, the United Nations and its partners are not able to come across that border," she said.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said there is a de facto partition of the country between rebels and government. But aid agencies continue to use methods that assume that sovereign powers hold this territory.
In absence of U.N. aid, Syria's Red Crescent — a Damascus-based organization shunned by the rebels who supervise Atmeh — is technically responsible for the camp inhabitants.
A first convoy from the Red Crescent arrived at the camp in early February, but was turned back at the gate, rejected by residents.
"No free Syrian would accept anything from Bashar," said Wifaf Abu Zeid, wife of Abdel Qadir.
In the shadow of a Turkish border post, Atmeh camp residents live in tents pitched in olive groves churned into mud, blanketed with the smoke of wood fires that are the only means of keeping warm in the deep of winter.
Residents now have tents and stoves provided by aid agencies. That is a big step forward from the camp's beginnings in August, when it was just families sleeping out in the trees under the rain.
But the camp residents — many of them villagers, farmers or day laborers — still face hunger, squalor, cold, and boredom. And sometimes tragedy.
A camp resident named Manar left her two small children alone in their tent for just five minutes to go to the bathroom one night last month.
She returned to find their tent in flames — a candle had set it on fire. Her 4-year-old daughter, Diaa, and 5-year-old son, Fathi, suffered severe burns that they soon died from.
"It all happened in five minutes. I was in the toilet," she said.
"We flee the strikes of Assad, and we die here."
Manar asked to be identified by her first name only out of fear for her security.
Camp administrators who work under the supervision of rebels say deaths such as these are rare.
And administrators say that diarrhea and other water-borne diseases, a scourge of families on the move, have passed the camp over.
Residents say food is provided by the Turkish Red Crescent, and dozens of other private NGOs and individuals provide other supplies ranging from medicines to educational supplies, without the regime's approval.
To get around regime restrictions on humanitarian aid within the country, some groups get simply dump goods just on the Turkish side of the border.
Other NGOs fear outbreaks of disease.
The U.N. warned in a report released Monday that contaminated water and poor hygiene practices in populated areas of Syria have led to an increase in waterborne illnesses such as Hepatitis A and Typhoid.
"We need a worldwide effort, an international effort," said Ziyad al-Rawar, an Atmeh camp administrator.
The camp survived a miserable, cold, rainy, muddy winter.
But al-Rawar said the population is growing by 10 to 15 families each day. It already burgeoned from about 12,000 in November to 16,000 currently.
Al-Rawar fears that when summer comes, camp residents will fight over water.
In Atmeh, as elsewhere in Syria, rebels and civilians are intertwined. Armed fighters come and go in the camp.
Almost every family has someone in the rebel battalions, not least because this is often their only source of income.
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