Idlib chaos forces displaced Syrians into strange dwellings

Birat Armanaz: Inside a rusty, abandoned bus in northwestern Syria, Umm Joumaa washes a silver tray and glass teacups, light pouring into her makeshift kitchen through broken windows. 

Around her, towels, bedsheets, clothes and plastic bags hang from wires that stretch across the smashed-out vehicle where the 44-year-old widow lives with her six children.

“We used to live in Al-Shariaa”, a village in the northwestern province of Hama, she said, a brown veil wrapped around her head. 

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“My home was hit once, and then hit a second time, while we were living there,” she added, saying this forced her to flee to olive groves in the neighbouring province of Idlib.

Now, she lives in the village of Birat Armanaz in western Idlib, in a bus riddled with holes, its interior cleared of all furnishings.

“We cleaned the bus and I settled here with my children,” said Umm Joumaa, whose husband was killed seven months ago by artillery fire from the Syrian regime.

Her set-up is rudimentary: foam mattresses and thick blankets are arranged at the rear, while a kettle and basic utensils are stored inside a plastic crate.

Water containers and firewood are propped against the mangled front bumper.

 – Living in caves –

More than 400,000 Syrians have been displaced by violence in the jihadist-run Idlib region since the end of April, the United Nations says.

A four-months-long Russian-backed regime offensive has killed more than 970 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A ceasefire announced by Moscow on August 31 has reduced air strikes, but skirmishes on the ground persist, despite the agreement.

The truce was the second such deal between the Syrian government and jihadists since August 1. 

The previous ceasefire collapsed after just a few days.

The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, controls most of Idlib as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

The region of around three million people is one of the last holdouts of opposition to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In a tight cave near the Turkish border, Abu Ahmad and his young son chip away at stone walls with metal rods and hammers.

The 49-year-old father of three has dug a cave for his family in the village of Kafr Lusin, three months after fleeing bombardment of his hometown of Termala, south of Idlib.

“I had dug a cave in Termala where we were living throughout the revolution, so I had the idea of digging a cave here as well,” Abu Ahmad told AFP.

“There, I dug a cave out of fear of airstrikes and bombing, but here, it’s out of fear of the cold,” he added. 

– ‘This is my life’ –

Abu Ahmad said the cave is a better place to live than in a tent, especially in winter or during periods of heavy bombardment.

“The tent does not protect you, not in summer or winter,” he said.

“I want to make this cave big enough for my whole family,” he added, his face red from hours of hard labour.

Sitting cross-legged on a large green carpet on the cave’s floor, his wife lamented her losses.

“We spent our entire lives working, struggling, building — and then, in an instant, a warplane destroyed our house with one missile,” said Khadija, pillows and mattresses stacked behind her. 

Overhead, a green water cooler hangs from a metal rod.

A handful of cooking utensils are kept in a plastic container and, besides a few spices and pickles stored in water bottles, there isn’t much else.

“Look around, this is where I live, this is my life,” she said. 

“This is the alternative to a home.” 

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