It’s so close to the border you can see it, sprawling ever larger up the olive grows, from well inside Turkey.

And from that distance it looks peculiarly pristine, brilliant white plastic tents marching daily further along the hillsides.

There are various methods of crossing the border and since none is legit, least said the better.

But by mid-morning we were in. In the pathetic dispensary with large, deep shelves and few drugs:

“We lack absolutely everything,” says a Syrian doctor who does not want to be identified, fearing reprisals from the government, even here, deep in rebel-held north Syria.

“We have bad problems for the children here, throat infections and diarrhoea – it will get worse in the winter.”

A few yards away a class of around 110 children is practising Koranic verses and then their English 1 to 10 and ABC.

Picture gallery: Fleeing the fighting – life in Atmeh

The school manager, Baseel Kafar, is close to tears with exasperation:

“What can we do? They have no school for more than a year. We can only try to format their brains. Otherwise they will waste here, become criminals.”

The reddish mud is everywhere, water flows wherever it will after the first autumn storms. There are a few metal latrines, a very few and for women only.

Image6 blog The squalor facing Syrias refugees in Atmeh

The men and boys simply drift off into the surrounding olive trees and pick their spot. Sewage seeps from the women-only cubicles, just a few yards from the drinking water point.

But there is food – trucks pass through with plastic bags of loaves, bottled water and fresh vegetables. Blackened family pots simmer away on olive-branch fires of thick tomato or tomato and aubergine soup – the staple here. 

And all the time they come. Another sad heap of bedding, gas canisters and rapidly-salvaged clothing is dumped in the dirt.

Bashir Deban, 15, speaks for parents too scared to be filmed:

“We’ve come from Aran Nassan – it’s terrible there. They’re attacking from the air with MIGs, helicopters and tanks and mortars on the ground.”

Everyone says 13 people were killed there two days ago. Nine from the same family. The mother was decapitated by the blasts.

We can’t verify this but so many say the same thing.

Ahmed Mustafa Kafar is 13 and takes us to the tent where he, five brothers, five sisters and his parents will sleep as they have for two months now.

“Yes of course I want to be at home – this is awful here – but at least it is safe.”

Thus far, the MIGs and helicopter gunships have given Atmeh a miss. But nobody knows if that will last.

But Atmah is no easy option and life here will become hellish in the snow of the cold Syrian oncoming winter.

Small wonder that the doctor here says some have upped and left, preferring the shelling and mayhem south of here to the pitiful tented hillsides of Atmeh.

Some kind of choice.

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