Why Syrians Forced To Flee Fighting Live In Fear Of The Sun

In the short time that has passed since December 1, the United Nations estimates that more than 300,000 Syrians have been forced to flee their homes amid intense fighting.

With military offensives being led by the government and its allies in southern Idlib Governorate, civilians have been forced to flee intense shelling and aerial bombings.

In their bid to survive, the displaced face arduous journeys, with limited options for shelter at overcrowded sites in the northern part of Idlib, which already hosts around 1.5 million vulnerable people, according to Médecins sans Frontières.

Then, there is also the biting cold that many are forced to contend with, not only along the journey, but also at makeshift shelters where displaced Syrians are forced to sleep in plummeting winter temperatures.

However, it is not only the cold, immigration advocates say, that many displaced Syrians fear. Often, it is the sun that casts the longest shadow on their hopes of finding safety.

What does the sun have to do with fleeing violence?

"Despite the winter temperatures, people tell us that they fear the sun; they consider it a bad sign," an MSF logistics team manager working in Idlib Governorate said in a statement published online by the organization.

"They say the airplanes bomb when the skies are clear, so they prefer days that are cold, cloudy and rainy," they said.

The logistics team manager said the revelation was one of many "disturbing things" they said their team in the region had heard while providing medical assistance to displaced Syrians in Idlib Governorate.

Speaking to Newsweek, which is also working to provide relief on the ground, Steve Gumaer, the CEO of Christian nonprofit Partners Relief & Development, said he too had heard Syrians express fears of having to make moves under sunlight.

"That is a fact," Gumaer said. "The fleeing civilians are afraid of drones—that's what's killing people and blowing up ambulances the most."

During a visit to Hasakah, the capital city of the Al-Hasakah Governorate in the far northeastern corner of Syria, last month, Gumaer said "many people" expressed this fear to him.

"It's also why they burn tires all the time," he said. "The smoke clouds the view of the drones."

While they may fear the sun, however, Syrians caught up in the conflict rarely have a choice on when they can flee, whether it be under the sun or on cold, cloudy days.

Ultimately, "the people we're working with fled when their cities were attacked," Gumaer said. "They didn't have a choice about when to flee."

A family prepares to flee a bombardment in Maaret al-Numan in Syria's southern Idlib governorate on December 20, 2019. Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP

On Sunday, residents still living in Syria's northwestern rebel-held region reportedly received a warning from the Syrian government to leave while they still have the chance.

White leaflets were dropped from the sky, according to The Washington Post, warning residents: "Your safety lies in you leaving the areas of armed groups and heading towards official crossings that the government opened."

Three crossings were meant to be open on Monday, with transportation and medical assistance also expected to be made available.

The warning came the same day that a ceasefire between Russia and Turkey came into effect, with Russia and its allies vowing to stop air strikes.

Armed forces, the leaflets warned, would be coming to "cleanse" the area. Syrians who do not leave, the message suggested, could be caught in the crossfire.

Newsweek contacted MSF for further comment for this article.