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Snow strands thousands in Turkey, Greece; threatens displaced Syrians in northern camps

Istanbul, Turkey/Athens, Greece

Some Istanbul Airport flights resumed on Tuesday after nearly 24 hours of cancellations as heavy snowfall clogged roads and stranded thousands of people across Turkey and Greece.

Greece Athens snow

A police car drives past the Greek parliament building, following heavy snowfall in Athens, Greece, on 25th January. PICTURE: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis.

In Athens, thousands were evacuated from a motorway overnight and took shelter at the city’s airport after Monday’s severe snowstorm. By Tuesday, dozens of cars were still covered in snow as ploughs tried to clear roads and anger grew among people trapped in freezing temperatures for hours.

Syria IDP camp near Aleppo

A snow covered camp for internally displaced people is seen in the Aleppo countryside, Syria, on 23rd January. Picture taken with drone. PICTURE: Reuters/Mahmoud Hassano.


Five-year-old Intissar and her younger sister Lin were sheltering from northern Syria’s bitter winter cold when fuel from a heater ignited their tent, killing them and seriously injuring their mother.

The young family and other displaced Syrians were living near the Turkish border in a camp of more than 400 tents, which offer little protection from snow storms and plunging temperatures which struck in recent days.

The cold snap has brought chaos to traffic and flights in neighbouring countries but its effects are most severe in north-west Syria, where three million people have been left homeless in a long-running humanitarian crisis. 

Many have been displaced several times by the 11-year war.

“People in the camp are suffering. The tents don’t protect from the cold,” said Nouredin al-Abdullah, whose cousin Ahmed is the father of the girls who died. “If you think about heating, God forbid, you and your children may go [the same way]”.

He said the latest snowfall was the heaviest he had seen. The weight of the snow has collapsed many tents, while water seeped underneath them.

Across the region, food supplies and health services have been disrupted and relief workers are struggling to reach some of the 300 worst affected sites, said Mark Cutts, UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.

“The numbers are just staggering, and it is very difficult to provide people with all the support they need,” he said. Desperate to stay warm, people were burning cardboard and plastic bottles, and then inhaling toxic fumes. 

“Even more suffering is caused because of the lack of fuel for heating,” he told Reuters, adding that at least one child had died from the freezing cold. 

“There are more than one million people still living in tents or substandard accommodation,” Cutts said. “It’s becoming increasingly urgent that we get people out of these tents.”

– MAHMOUD HASANO and TOM PERRY, Afrin, Syria/Reuters

“The situation is hopeless,” said Spiros Kandaras, who spent 24 hours in his car. “They should be ashamed of this mess.”

In Istanbul, the airport, among the world’s biggest, has been under a thick blanket of snow with runways and planes covered.

The snowfall began late last week and picked up over the past days in the city of 16 million people, delaying buses and ferries and prompting a ban on driving private vehicles. 

“We have been here for more than 24 hours already,” said Selim Kilik, who planned to fly to Paris this week. He complained about a lack of staff and information.

An airport spokesperson said limited flights began around 1.00pm after a 22-hour delay, and that scheduled flights would resume around midnight. 

Turkish Airlines earlier said it had halted all flights until 2100 GMT. 

Ugurcan Guller, who was waiting for a domestic flight, said stranded passengers had problems with baggage, tickets and food at Istanbul Airport.

“We have been sleeping on the floor miserably since yesterday,” he said. “We call on the authorities to find a solution for us.”

Snow-covered beaches
Storms swept through the region from Greece and across Turkey, as well as into Syria, where snow has disrupted aid deliveries to displaced families living in tented camps.

In Turkey, snow carpeted the beaches of the southern resort city of Antalya for the first time in 29 years. In a rare sight, Greece’s southern Aegean islands, including Mykonos, also turned white. 

A video posted on social media showed a man skiing through Istanbul’s streets, with people waving as he passed.  

Governor Ali Yerlikaya took the rare step of banning private cars until 1000 GMT, while public workers were given leave through Wednesday to keep commutes to a minimum. 

Buses were suspended until Wednesday and vehicles arriving from west of the city were barred.

Other footage showed trucks and cars stranded along highways in and around Istanbul. Passage across the Bosphorus Strait reopened on Tuesday, while people were evacuated from stranded vehicles, said Transport Minister Adil Karaismailoglu. 

Across the country, about 4,600 people were left stranded on roads and elsewhere, and thousands had been placed in temporary housing, the Disaster and Emergency Authority said.

Heavy snow is rare in Athens but the city has now been hit by extreme weather for a second consecutive winter.

More than 3,500 people had been evacuated by early Tuesday, some abandoning their cars on foot, but around 1,200 cars remained stuck on the Attiki Odos, the capital’s main ring-road, government spokesperson Giannis Oikonomou said.

Turkey Istanbul snowfall

People walk, with the Sultanahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque in the background, during heavy snowfall in Istanbul, Turkey, on 25th January. PICTURE:  Reuters/Umit Bektas.

As temperatures fell overnight, soldiers shovelled snow and handed out food, water and blankets to drivers, some of whom were stranded in their cars for more than 10 hours.

Parts of Athens were hit by power cuts for several hours, and the grid operator said crews were working to restore electricity.

Authorities declared Tuesday and Wednesday a public holiday, shutting schools, public offices and private businesses except pharmacies, supermarkets and petrol stations.

– Additional reporting by EZGI ERKOYUN, TUVAN GUMRUKCU and CEYDA CAGLAYAN in Istanbul and VASSILIS TRIANDAFYLLOU in Athens


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