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Syria's displaced million brace for bleak winter

A man works in front of a damaged house near Homs October 9, 2012. Picture taken October 9, 2012 REUTERS/Yazan Homsy
A man works in front of a damaged house near Homs October 9, 2012. Picture taken October 9, 2012 REUTERS/Yazan Homsy

(Reuters) - In a dusty park in north Damascus, Fatima Badr is preparing to give birth without medical care, no roof over her head and far from the home she fled when President Bashar al-Assad's forces bombarded her town east of the Syrian capital.

Another 20 families, displaced like her by the violence sweeping Syria, live alongside Badr in the tree-lined park in Barzeh district after fleeing the city of Homs or opposition strongholds east of Damascus.

Exposed to the elements and dependent on aid, they are the most visible part of a wave of uprooted humanity - with many people forced to move several times by the ever-changing frontlines of Syria's conflict.

While 340,000 people have escaped the country and registered as refugees, around 1.2 million have been displaced within Syria. Some seek shelter with friends or relatives in safer areas, others cram into public buildings such as schools, and a few are simply living rough.

Aid groups say that the approaching winter will deepen the suffering of Syria's homeless in a conflict which has already claimed 30,000 lives, according to activists.

"I'm expecting in two or three weeks, and I'm scared of giving birth in the park," said Badr. Her husband used to sell vegetables in the town of Douma which the army has shelled in its campaign to push out rebels trying to overthrow Assad.

"There is no doctor here and I'm going to give birth in the open. I wish someone could bring me a tent or find a midwife for me, even if I can't go to hospital."

For people like Badr, destitute and often without work, even the modest fees that government hospitals charge for childbirth can be unaffordable.

Some other families living alongside her in the park in Barzeh have been there for weeks. They fled Homs for the town of Yabroud, north of the capital, only to move again when that came under attack.

Others were sheltered over the summer in a Barzeh school, before they were moved on when the academic year started last month.

"We don't get much assistance from anyone except from local residents who bring food, bread, milk for children and nappies for the babies - but that was only for the first few days," said Ilham Hassan, a mother of three girls whose husband was killed in Homs and who came to Damascus via Yabroud.

"FACING DESTITUTION"

The United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in August that the million Syrians uprooted by the violence face destitution.

Away from the spotlight which has shone on refugees in camps in neighboring Jordan or Turkey, their suffering has drawn less attention but their needs are increasingly urgent.

As well as Sunni Muslims fleeing attacks on city areas suspected of harboring rebel fighters, many tens of thousands of Assad's minority Alawites have also left areas of conflict, moving to the Mediterranean provinces of Latakia and Tartous.

Hundreds of thousands need urgent help, aid workers say. "It's extremely cold in winter. They don't have adequate shelter, they don't have blankets," said Ettie Higgins, UNICEF's deputy representative in Syria.

UNICEF is buying 75,000 blankets and sets of winter clothing, as well as incubators, baby blankets and 10,000 tarpaulins to waterproof floors. But Higgins said: "What we will have is not sufficient. We're talking about 600,000 children displaced and we're procuring clothes for 75,000 of them."

While only a minority are surviving in the open like Badr, figures from Syria's Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs showed that 109,000 are living in 386 "collection centers" around the country, while the others live with host families.

With fighting continuing across the country including in Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, Homs in the center and Deir al-Zor in the east, many more may be displaced in the next few months, dwarfing existing aid efforts.

"It's really inadequate so we're desperately looking for more funding," Higgins said.

The UNHCR refugee agency said on Friday it had provided aid including rugs and mattresses to 200,000 people across Syria and - subject to funding - planned deliveries to 300,000 more by the end of the year.

HOUSE BURNING

"No one knows the number of displaced people in the country, even in Damascus," said Suad, who works in the aid group Syrian Women, run by activists who used to go on demonstrations at the start of the 18-month-old uprising but now focus on relief work.

"Every day there are more displaced people. They are filling up the shelters and people helping them in the parks cannot continue indefinitely," she said.

State-approved groups, including one sponsored by Assad's wife Asmaa, also help families in the hundreds of shelters across the country.

But Suad said this is paltry. "Those people in the park are the poorest of the displaced people. The regime is not thinking of them, and it is still destroying and burning their houses, hoping they die because it believes they offer the rebels a supportive environment," she said. "No one is addressing their needs."

In the Barzeh park, known as Abbas Garden, Najah says she is trying to find work to support her nine daughters and her elderly husband who is suffering from a gallbladder ailment.

The family escaped the Baba Amr district of Homs which was subjected to a month of bombardment by government forces in February, moved south to the capital and rented a room near the southeastern suburb of Sayida Zeinab.

In a tale which echoes the movements of thousands of other families seeking safety around the capital, they shuttled between Abbas Garden and Sayida Zeinab several times before the money for their rent ran out.

"I try to go to houses and ask if they want a cleaner. But people here are not rich and they can't afford to pay someone to clean. Sometimes, they give me food," said Najah.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by David Stamp)

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