AL-HOL, SYRIA, Children and babies are dying at increasingly rapid rates in or on their way to al-Hol camp in Syria, as the population balloons with more evacuees from the last patch of land held by Islamic State militants, according to the International Rescue Committee.
"Women and children are arriving at al-Hol camp in the gravest condition," Wendy Taeuber, the International Rescue Committee's Iraq and northeast Syria country director, said in a statement Monday. "Many of the latest arrivals have been badly wounded from the fighting in Baghuz."
More than 120 people coming from Baghuz have died in recent weeks. Most were children under 5 years old. Hundreds of children have also been hospitalized, and about 250 more have arrived at the camp without an adult to care for them, the IRC said.
"We are still seeing a disturbing number of babies and infants dying soon after arriving at the camp because they are so badly malnourished or dehydrated," Taeuber added.
As aid organizations struggle to manage the crisis, the camp's population has grown to 70,000 people, with thousands arriving in the past few days.
Umm Abdu is one of about 13,000 people living in crowded tents, hoping she and her two children will be moved to a safer, more comfortable single-family one. In the meantime, she said, tensions are high in the camp, which doesn't have enough food or medical care.
Families here are almost all related to IS members now either in jail, missing or dead. Camp residents are wary of the authorities that are leading the charge against IS in this part of Syria, as well as tasked with caring for displaced families.
"The alliance was bombing us," Umm Abdu said, trudging through the thick mud. "Many children were psychologically damaged."
Support for IS runs high in this part of the camp. Many women loudly declare their allegiance to anyone who will listen. Umm Abdu said she doesn't care who is in charge if she can be safe. There are almost no adult men.
About 100 meters away, children sell fruit and vegetables out of crates. They say they are still afraid of the Syrian and international forces. Even in Baghuz, while bombs pummeled the camp, Hamza, 10, thought he was protected by IS. "We were safer there," he said.
Internationally backed Syrian forces are continuing their assault in Baghuz, where militants still hold an old camp by the Euphrates River, originally built to house people fleeing IS.
"Several positions captured, and an ammunition storage has been blown up by our forces. [Syrian Democratic Forces] is now holding positions inside the camp," said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali in a tweet early Monday.
The current phase of the battle for Baghuz began in early March, after a pause in the fighting while tens of thousands of people evacuated the last IS stronghold. The crowds were far more than anyone expected, and continue to grow.
Authorities say they will no longer officially estimate the amount of people remaining inside Baghuz, but evacuees have reported that there are still roughly 5,000 people inside.
Source: Voice of America