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A 'Devastating Scale' Of Suffering In Syria


A horrific scene of suffering is unfolding in Syria. Nearly 1 million Syrian civilians have fled their homes, many trying to find shelter along their country's northern border with Turkey. Half of them are children. It is winter, and there are reports that children and infants are freezing to death in the bitter cold.

CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon has been covering the conflict there, and she joins us now from Iraq. Good morning.

ARWA DAMON: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This has been described as a devastating scale of humanitarian suffering. Can you tell me what some of the families have been telling you about their experience?

DAMON: I think, Lulu, it's gotten to a point where what they've been through is so on the scale of horrific that they struggle to put it into words. But you start to get an understanding of the depths of it when you look at their faces and when you look at the behavior of some of the children.

We met a family who had been walking for seven hours overnight in the dark to get away from the bombing around their village. It was bitterly cold, and a couple of the children didn't have proper shoes. They had socks that were soaked through and, you know, rubber flip-flops. And they weren't complaining. They were standing there shaking, obviously exhausted. But they weren't complaining, and they weren't crying. And that's what really strikes you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How bad is the fighting right now that they're fleeing from?

DAMON: It's very intense, and it's moving very quickly. And it's the sort of pace where, you know, people move and think that they've reached safety. And then, you know, three to four days later, they have to move again because that's how quickly it's advancing towards them. I mean, in some small areas, the Turkish military buildup and the support that the Turks are giving to the more moderate rebel groups on the ground is sort of causing the regime advance to pause. But it's not really ending the systematic bombardment of these villages and towns. It's not stopping this sort of exodus, these wave upon wave of this exodus of humanity.

And the big problem, Lulu, is that they actually don't have anywhere to go because Turkey's border's shut. So there's no exit from the war zone for them. And they're getting crushed into this smaller space where there isn't enough humanitarian assistance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to say, I mean, the United Nations has been making urgent appeals for at least a cease-fire to be able to get to and help this population of people. I mean, how likely is it? I mean, this looks like the Assad regime, backed by the Russians, is trying to push into the last rebel-held area and trying to take it over.

DAMON: That's exactly what it looks like, and that's exactly what it feels like. And the talks that took place - the most recent ones between the Russians and the Turks - don't seem like they led to any sort of agreement moving towards any semblance of a cease-fire at this stage.

And you know, the warnings coming from the U.N. could not be more dire. The head of the U.N.'s humanitarian program was saying, you know, if nothing changes, if it stays like this, that part of Syria is going to turn into the world's biggest pile of rubble strewn with the bodies of a million children. And you also come across stories where, you know, families - they've perhaps managed to outrun the bombs, outrun the fighting, but then they're stuck in situations where they can't outrun the cold. There is not enough for them to burn. They're poor.

And we went to one of the camps, and we met this family whose baby had frozen to death. The mother was just sitting in the corner in complete and total shock. The baby's father got up and walked out of the tent before he broke down.

And the mother was describing how her baby was healthy. Abdulwahab (ph) was healthy. He had, you know, been nursing. He was giggling. She played with him. She put him to sleep. They didn't have enough to burn that night. The temperatures dropped well below zero. And she woke up in the morning and touched him, and he was icy. And they took him to the hospital, and the doctor said that he died from the cold.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's CNN's Arwa Damon describing her reporting in Syria. Thank you very much.

DAMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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