Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

On the run to nowhere: displaced Syrians in Idlib flee fighting

Living in their cars, in half build homes and in mud-filled tents, many of the half-million people displaced by the regime offensive have few options

Exhausted from days of driving in search of shelter in northwest Syria, 38-year-old Ghossoon has no idea where her family will go after fleeing regime and Russian bombardment.

"Thank God we have this car to sleep in, even if it's not comfortable," she said, after parking the grey people-carrier by the side of the road.

"We've spent two nights in it so far," she said, sitting on a blanket and leaning back against the vehicle in Maaret Misrin, a town in Idlib province.

"This will be the third night. We'll stay in it again because we can't find anywhere else to go," she added.

By her side, Ghossoon's husband crouches with their baby daughter in his arms, while their young son, who is wrapped up in a winter coat, clutches a packet of plain biscuits.

Russia-backed regime forces have pounded Syria's last major rebel bastion over the past two months, forcing more than 580,000 people from their homes and onto the roads.

Displaced Ghossoon and her husband sit by their parked car on the outskirts of Maaret Misrin town in Syria's Idlib province on February 6, 2020, after fleeing regime and Russian bombardment. Russia-backed regime forces have pounded Syria's last major rebel bastion over the past two months, forcing more than 580,000 people from their homes and onto the roads. In a newly-established camp on the edges of Maaret Misreen, tents made available for newcomers are already packed. Designed to host 350 families, the camp is now brimming with more than 800, and people keep flooding in. / AFP / AAREF WATAD
Ghossoon and her husband sit by their parked car on the outskirts of Maaret Misrin town in Syria's Idlib province on February 6, 2020. AFP

In the extremist-run region of some 3 million people, entire families have headed north in cars piled high with blankets, chairs and pans as they seek to survive the winter.

But many are struggling to find protection from the cold along the Turkish border, which was closed by Ankara in response to waves of displacement earlier in Syria's nine-year civil war.

Ghossoon and her husband have stuffed warm blankets and pillows in the back of their car, while they have strapped large plastic woven mats to the roof.

"We went to the camps, but there wasn't any space there," Ghossoon said.

"We looked for a home but the rent was really expensive. Where am I supposed to find the money?"

The average monthly rent in Idlib's northern countryside was around $150 per apartment before the latest wave of displacement; the few available are now priced as high as $350, according to an AFP correspondent.

On Wednesday, eight organisations called for an immediate ceasefire, describing the situation as a "humanitarian catastrophe".

Bahia Zrikem from Humanity Inclusion said, "there are simply more people than homes available."

"Many of those who have fled are sleeping in their cars or camping by the side of the road."

In a newly-established camp on the edge of Maaret Misrin, tents made available for newcomers are already packed.

Entire families are sleeping on the muddy floor, with carpets, mattresses, and household appliances stacked around them, an AFP correspondent said.

Designed to host 350 families, the camp is now brimming with more than 800, and people keep flooding in.

Syrians flee bombardment by Syrian government forces in the village of Kafr Nuran in the northern province of Aleppo on February 9, 2020. / AFP / AAREF WATAD
Syrians flee bombardment by Syrian government forces in the village of Kafr Nuran in the northern province of Aleppo. AFP

Mustafa Haj Ahmad arrived in the camp only days ago along with 30 relatives, including his wife and seven children.

The 40-year-old said he fled fighting near his hometown of Sarmin carrying nothing but clothes.

When he arrived in the camp, he couldn't find a tent for his family.

"We have been sleeping under trees for the past two days," he told AFP.

Even though Mustafa can't afford to rent a house closer to the Turkish border, he said he is determined to head there.

"We will sleep in the olive groves; I don't know what else we can do."

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, displacement camps are at five times their capacity and rental prices have skyrocketed in towns in Syria's northwest.

This has forced Alaa Aboud, 38, to relocate his family from northern Idlib to the provincial capital, only a few kilometres away from the frontline.

Syrian army units advance in the town of al-Eis in south Aleppo province on February 9, 2020, following battles with rebels and jihadists. Al-Eis, which overlooks the M5, was on a front that saw fierce fighting between the regime and its opponents in 2016. Syrian troops advancing north of Idlib linked up near Al-Eis with their comrades pushing south of Aleppo on Saturday, state news agency SANA said. The two units had recently waged separate battles in rural Aleppo and southern Idlib, but are now conjoined for the first time as they push north along the M5 highway. / AFP / -
Syrian army units advance in the town of Al Eis in south Aleppo province on February 9, 2020. AFP

He now lives with his wife, five children, his two parents and his brother in an unfinished building in Idlib city.

The rudimentary cinderblock home doesn't have windows or doors installed.

The floors don't have tiles and the walls need painting.

A carpet and cushions are laid out on the floor.

"This place is better than others, at least we have a roof over our heads," Alaa said.

"But if the roof is destroyed over us, then it would be better to live in the mud," he added, fearing attacks on Idlib city.

Preparing for an eventual offensive on the city itself, he said he is looking for a plot of land further north, where he can pitch a tent.

But he said he hopes he won't need it.

"May God spare us," he said.

"We are tired."

Updated: February 10, 2020 12:13 PM

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