A Syrian woman tends to her children as other family members pass the time… (Maysun / European Pressphoto…)
ATMA, Syria — The rows of olive groves that line the hillsides like silent sentinels are bursting with life, both on the laden branches and the fruit-scattered ground below, where families camp out on mattresses and in tents.
The trees appear healthy. The people are desperate.
"We don't have enough food, we don't have proper shelter," a mother said as she spoon-fed donated lentil soup to her infant son the other day. "What will we do with winter coming?"
The hundreds living amid the olive groves on the edges of this rebel-held town hugging the Turkish-Syrian border are among the 1.5 million Syrians left homeless in the conflict but still living in Syria. The chaos of warfare has rendered it impossible to calculate a precise number, with some estimates going as high as 4 million.
International attention has focused on the plight of Syrians who have fled to neighboring nations, taxing the resources of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Syrian refugees abroad probably number more than 500,000, according to the United Nations and other estimates.
They may be the lucky ones.
Those outside Syria generally have some form of haven, however tenuous or Spartan their existence in exile. Many live in formal camps where minimum necessities are available and children attend schools. International groups and nations have provided aid.
For the uprooted still in Syria, there is little or no security, and scant help. Many depend on the charity of relatives or friendly families, or on limited help from aid organizations and the government.
Multitudes of bedraggled and desperate Syrians have been wandering for months, traveling from place to place in search of shelter, often under the threat of artillery shelling and aerial bombardment.
Thousands have become stuck along the Syrian-Turkish border in recent weeks as Turkey has restricting entries until the government can build more camps, creating a growing human logjam.
Homeless Syrians, several of them pregnant, besieged journalists who managed to enter Syria and encountered the families living amid the olive trees. Food, medical care and sanitary facilities were spotty or nonexistent, they said.
"This is no way for us to live," said a matriarch who gave her name as Um Talal and was part of an extended family living outdoors. "How can we keep the children from getting sick?"
Because it is practically surrounded by Turkey, this border region has become a kind of de facto buffer zone, attracting both refugees and rebel combatants. Syrian artillery and aircraft have not targeted the area, apparently fearing that an errant strike across the border could further inflame already-combustible Turkish-Syrian relations.
That relative tranquillity has produced an influx of people. Atma's population has more than tripled, to more than 15,000.
As many as five rebel bands are based in Atma, which is also a destination for foreign fighters who want to join the insurgent ranks.
The other day, three young Saudi men were seeking the local headquarters of Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group known for its proficiency in homemade bombs. Military vehicles of various sorts maneuvered along deeply rutted roads.
Many who have congregated here appear exhausted, physically and emotionally.
"We lost nine people from my family," said Um Khaled, a mother of three who, like others interviewed, preferred to be identified by a nickname for security reasons.
On Sept. 11, she said, a strike by a Syrian government aircraft hit a relative's home in her town, Kafarzeita, in Hama province. "We survived everything until that," she said. "Then we found their bodies, or what was left of them."
She stopped and tears welled up in her eyes. She took a deep breath but was unable to continue. Other women comforted her.
For almost a month, Um Khaled and other townsfolk wandered in the direction of Turkey, staying in homes and schools. Upon reaching the border, they were told there was no room in the Turkish camps.
But she was fortunate, in a sense. She and others from Kafarzeita found a spot in a new makeshift encampment in the nearby town of Qah. Volunteers gathered donations to build the facility, believed to be the first such camp for the displaced in "liberated" Syria. But space is limited, with only about 50 tents set up so far.
Back in the olive groves, Um Talal lamented that there was no space for her family in the new camp. Although determined to find proper shelter before winter's onset, she worried about the prospect of going to Turkey. "I'd rather die on my own soil."