In mid-June, airstrikes resumed in Idlib Governorate, targeting the zone west of Maarat-al-Numan. Most people in these areas live in poverty, and the regions where they can take refuge continue to shrink under the Syrian army’s relentless attacks.
Abu Fadel, Hassan, and Iman are three of the 2.7 million displaced people currently living in Idlib in northwest Syria. Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, has become home to a population of people left shattered and impoverished after nine years of war. Abu Fadel, Hassan and Iman recount similar stories of everyday life in what has become an open-air prison.
“Nowhere is safe anymore.”
Iman Oum Ziad and her eight children used to live in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold east of Damascus. In 2013, Syrian government forces laid siege to Eastern Ghouta and subjected the area to suspected chemical weapon attacks. After four years of siege, in 2017 Eastern Ghouta was one of the de-escalation zones supposed to halt the fighting—despite this agreement, airstrikes continued to be part of its inhabitants’ daily existence.
“We lived through the horror,” Iman says. “The airstrikes launched day and night, the siege; we had nothing to eat. We fled from one place to another just to survive. We changed house six or seven times, and still the airstrikes kept getting closer."
The impact was catastrophoic—Iman’s sister-in-law died during the siege, and her mother died as a result of their inability to obtain her medication. Her son was shot and killed by a sniper while he was bringing home bread for the family.
Like many Syrians in Eastern Ghouta, Iman preferred to be evacuated to Idlib governorate instead of remaining in an area under government control. In February 2018, the Syrian army launched a large-scale aerial offensive and many civilians were killed. When Eastern Ghouta fell to the government, Iman refused to stay. In April 2018, she and her family were evacuated to Idlib, where they found themselves in one of the many displaced persons camps.
We don’t know where to go anymore.
“We don’t know where to go anymore,” says Iman. “At any moment the airstrikes could start up again. As long as the regime’s in place, we can’t go back to Ghouta. They’ve made it clear that we’ll be imprisoned or executed if we do. Nowhere is safe anymore, not even in Idlib.”
The camp where they’ve taken refuge has no electricity or clean water, and only communal latrines. The COVID-19 pandemic has also meant that there has been no school for the children for the past few months.
Two of Iman’s daughters stayed in Eastern Ghouta. They communicate through infrequent voice messages, but refrain from phone calls in fear of being arrested by the government forces. Her 10-year-old daughter Jana panics whenever she hears planes in the sky. The fear is constant.
“We're under another siege,” Iman says. “This time here in Idlib."
“Our hope is what is killing us.”
Hassan Abou Noah was a student in Talbiseh in Homs Governorate before the war; as a student, he took part in the protests, seeing it as his ‘duty to resist’. During the negotiations between the government and the opposition, he was evacuated to the Khan al-Assal region in Aleppo Province in 2018. When the airstrikes intensified in January 2019, he was forced to flee once again.
“It was like I was in slow motion,” says Hassan. “I could see everyone around me running, but I felt numb. We jumped into a car and took off. We were bumper to bumper, like a procession of ants.”
The planes continued to drop bombs as the population fled from Aleppo, with one bomb narrowly missing Hassan and his sons.
Hassan is staying with a friend in Idlib because he can’t afford to rent; his wife and children are staying with relatives in another village. There’s not enough accommodation in the town for everyone, whether they have money or not. Prices are exorbitant, as trade with the outside world is impossible. Idlib has no running water either, so it has to be bought and—like everything else—the price is high. Every time his youngest son Adam hears the airstrikes, he asks his father if it’s thunder. Hassan tells him it is.
"I look at Idlib, and I see a depressed town where there’s no hope,” Hassan says. “The paralysis and the sadness are the same in the camps as in the town.
“I’ve experienced every emotion that exists. I’ve been frightened. I’ve thought that perhaps all this is in fact normal. I’ve felt empty and, on the odd occasion, happy. Now I wonder if I’m not hooked on the situation. We used to be scared when we heard bullets whistle. Here, we hear the planes and the airstrikes and start talking about something else.”
Leaving Syria means paying people smugglers to get to Turkey—around 12,000 dollars for all of Hassan’s family. “I could always sell my kidneys,” he says.
“I don’t want to leave Syria. All I want is to live with my family under the same roof. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We continue to hope, but that’s precisely what’s killing us.”
“We’re trapped here. There’s only one way out.”
Abou Fadel has spent the past six months living in a tent less in a makeshift camp west of Idlib with his wife and five children, aged 4 to 15. Early this year Abou Fadel and his family had to flee from the airstrikes launched against Talmenes, the village Abou was born in and where he and his family called home.
“The airstrikes went on for five days,” Abou says. “And then it was the ground troops. That was when we decided our only option was to leave. We escaped on a truck with dozens of other families to the town of Idlib. We spent a week in a mosque and then set up this camp here.
“Instead of asking how I manage to survive, you should ask me if I’m surviving,” the 40-year old says. “The answer is, no. I borrow money from friends and relatives without knowing when I can pay them back, or if I’ll even be able to before I die.”
Every now and again, he closes his eyes and imagines himself back in Talmenes, playing with his children near his parent’s two storey-home. His dreams and aspirations are simple, now—he just wants to go back to before the war.
“I’ve forgotten almost everything about my life before the war,” Abou says. “I wake up in a state of permanent anxiety worrying about my kids. They haven’t been to school since we left home. They loved school."
The tent the family lives in is a freezer in the winter, and an oven in the summer. Abou spends his days walking around the camp and drinking tea with his neighbours. If the situation becomes more grim, they plan to seek refuge as close as they can to the Turkish border, where Abou believes it’s safer. After nine years of terror, safety is relative.
“We’re trapped here,” Abou says. “There’s only one way out.”