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U.N. Pleads For Cease-Fire As Displaced Syrians Head For Turkish Border

NOEL KING, HOST:

A small area in northwest Syria is becoming a cold and dangerous refuge for Syrians who are fleeing bombings and troops from the Syrian government and its ally, Russia. Around 900,000 people have been displaced in just a couple of months. They're heading for Turkey. NPR's Deborah Amos is on the line from Beirut. Hi, Deb.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi.

KING: When did this offensive in northwest Syria start, and why has it displaced so very many people?

AMOS: Began in December. It accelerated in the past few weeks, as the Syrian army makes gains. They retook a strategic north-south highway. Flights resumed today from Syria's second largest city, Aleppo. That's the first time since 2012.

KING: Right.

AMOS: The price for civilians has been enormous. The military campaign appears to be scorched Earth - villages, towns bombed to rubble; hospitals, bakeries, schools have been leveled; and airstrikes. It's really the worst situation in any time in this almost nine-year war.

KING: I know that you've been talking to a doctor there in northwest Syria, and he has been trying to treat people while clinics are being attacked. How did he describe what his life is like right now?

AMOS: I reached Dr. Mohamed Abrash. He's a Syrian surgeon. He's working at a hospital near the border. He says the emergency room brings about 100 to 120 patients per day. This is due to airstrikes. Those airstrikes have also closed most of the other hospitals in the northwest.

MOHAMED ABRASH: They attacked more than 67 medical center, primary health care and hospitals and mobile clinic like this.

AMOS: And Dr. Abrash says maybe his hospital will have to close, too.

ABRASH: Till now, I'm not thinking because - still, I have to give my experience to those injured people. Still, I am brave still now (laughter).

AMOS: He says he can hear the bombings as he treats his patients.

KING: He sounds like an impressive person. I mean, one thing that you've pointed out is that these people are essentially trapped in place where they are. You've talked to people who are trying to get them help. What are they seeing?

AMOS: So the roads are jammed with cars, trucks. People sleep where they are. They hope they can get a tent. Others are in olive groves. I reached Hisham Derani. He coordinates aid from Turkey. He says aid agencies can only provide shelter for about 20% of these people. And he says this is not a short-term crisis; it's a long-term one because only about 50 - I'm sorry - 500 people have returned to regime-controlled areas; more than a million are heading to the Turkish border.

HISHAM DERANI: So I don't think that people will go back. Most of them, their villages, their cities are destroyed completely, or also, they don't want to be under the regime control. So that's a huge number of people sitting in small area with no infrastructure.

AMOS: That's Hisham Derani. He's one of the coordinators of humanitarian aid.

KING: I'm trying to comprehend more than a million people headed toward the Turkish border. What is Turkey saying?

AMOS: Well, they have shut their border because...

KING: OK.

AMOS: ...For Turkey, Syria is a hot-button political issue. They have resettled 4 million Syrians. Turkey has now threatened imminent operations in Syria. They've sent in reinforcements, troops and tanks. But at the same time, the Turks are in Moscow for talks. So far, Russia fully supports the Syrian military advance. Turkey is aiming for a deal before the Syrian army pushes all the way to the Turkish border.

KING: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Deb, thanks so much for this reporting.

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