Bab-al-Salam camp, Syria - As darkness descends on the dreary refugee camp bordering Turkey, hungry residents queue for the daily distribution of meagre rations.
Displaced Syrians wait in the long line with tin and plastic containers, hoping those dishing out food will provide enough to feed their families.
Shortages of all kinds of supplies, particularly food and fuel, are common throughout Syria and in this muddy camp near the city of Azaz - 400 kilometres directly north of Damascus - it is no different. The situation at Bab-al-Salam has steadily deteriorated.
"We are watching a humanitarian tragedy unfold before our eyes."
- Valerie Amos, UN humanitarian chief
Immersed in a bitter winter cold, the people have become increasingly destitute, desperate and impatient as the nearly two-year-old civil war rages on. Syrians in the north have been largely cut off from international aid. The United Nations refugee agency only reached rebel-held Azaz for the first time in the past few weeks.
About four million people in Syria need assistance, including some two million who are internally displaced, the United Nations said this week. An estimated 70,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011. The conflict has become a bloody stalemate, with no end in sight to the suffering.
"We are watching a humanitarian tragedy unfold before our eyes," the UN's humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told reporters this week in Geneva. "We are not reaching enough of those who require our help. Limited access in the north is a problem that can only solved using alternative methods of aid delivery."
Relying on rebels
Muhammad, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of government reprisal, is a representative of A'asif al-Shamal, or The North Storm rebel militia that operates the camp outside of Azaz. He said while the cold weather has intensified, fuel prices have quadrupled in northern areas in just one month.
"Supplies such as flour, milk, diapers, blankets are required … People in this camp are having to buy wood or cut down trees just to stay warm," Muhammad said.
Aid donors such as Turkish NGO IHH and the Qatari government have provided food and tents to the camp. Better off Syrian citizens are also donating money, allowing the rebel militia to buy supplies from Turkey, but the funding is inadequate, camp leaders say.
Internally displaced Syrians trudge through the muddy ground amid the round white tents that house the 2,500 residents here in the crude, improvised village.
Rubbish is littered across the peripheries, and children vigorously try to sell chocolate biscuits and cigarette lighters to help their families financially. Men collect firewood to fend off the nightly sub-zero temperatures.
|The Bab-al-Salam camp near Turkey [Saad Basir/Al Jazeera]
The sound of the afternoon call to prayer echoes through the camp, as the smoke from dozens of cherished fires hangs in the air, stinging the eyes.
The camp is less than 100 metres from the Syrian border with Turkey, and is home to residents of the main financial city Aleppo, Azaz and northern rural areas. Most have been denied entry into Turkey or are financially unable to make the journey and sustain their families there.
"People keep coming here because of the bombings and shelling in Azaz by [President Bashar] al-Assad," said Muhammad. "The regime has bombed hospitals in Azaz, which is very near here. They said they wanted to target a rebel commander, but he was in Turkey and many civilians were killed instead."
An UN-mandated commission released a report on Monday that found both sides of the conflict were committing war crimes, though it said government forces carried more blame.
Assad's regime has labeled its opponents "terrorists" who are funded and backed by the West, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The threat of attack by Assad's forces is a constant reality as fighter jets and helicopter gunships fly overhead, plunging the camp into chaos.
Abu Bahar - who also asked that his real name not be used for fear of retaliation - fled from Aleppo. He sits on a plastic chair outside his tent, pensively counting prayer beads.
"My brother and father were taken by Bashar paramilitary groups five months ago, so we had to leave our home," said Bahar. "They also took 50,000 Syrian pounds [US$700]. My father has come back, but my brother is still with them."
He said peace between the warring factions is the only thing that will end the suffering. "We have no electricity, no food but I don't want these things. I want peace. With peace our problems will go away. We don't have to worry."
Bahar said he does not know when or how political reconciliation would play out. He only wants to reclaim his life and have some control over the future of his family.
The young exposed
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria
Another camp resident, who identified himself as Saif, prepares firewood by smashing a boulder into tree branches he's collected. His eight-month-old son died in October amid the biting cold and lack of food.
"He was my only child. What was his crime?" he asked.
When the Assad regime is mentioned, Saif thrusts his chin to the sky and sharply pulls his index finger across his throat and curses.
Saif claimed to be a fighter in the insurgency, but that's impossible to verify. Many young men from Syria's north have joined the ranks of the Free Syrian Army rebels, even though lots volunteer for non-combat roles.
The Syrians gathered at the Bab-al-Salam camp are surviving as best they can, like thousands of others languishing along the northern border. Assad's government has refused permission for the UN to bring aid supplies across the Turkish border, because northern Syria is largely controlled by rebel fighters.
However, three more international aid agencies - Mercy Corps, NRC and Merlyn - were recently given the green light by the Syrian government to start relief operations in the country, bringing the total to 11.
But Amos, the UN's humanitarian aid official, said that's not enough. She again this week asked Assad's regime to allow UN aid workers access through Turkey.
"I have spoken to the [Syrian] government on a number of occasions about allowing us to bring in supplies across that border. My last conversation with them was yesterday [Monday]. The answer remains 'no'," Amos said.