AL BARA, Idlib Province – As Syria’s neighboring countries grapple with a million refugees who fled from violence, a far greater number of internally displaced Syrians have moved away from the front lines to await the conflict’s conclusion. Life is anything but easy.
In the villages surrounding Maaret Al-Numan, a city of 120,000 that has been largely destroyed after months of air raids and shelling, former city dwellers have downgraded their lifestyles, joining multiple families in two or three room homes.
In Al Bara, just a few miles west of Maaret, Ahmad, his wife and four children (three teenagers and a toddler), live in a single room, sharing a modest house with another family.
Ahmad, who didn’t want his surname revealed, used to sell cars in Maaret and led a comfortable life. After surviving without an income for many months, he is worried about the future as he exhausts his savings.
He’s too proud to live in a camp, even if it’s safer and would reduce his expenses.
“We will stay until the end,” he said, before launching into one of his frequent, expletive-laden tirades against the Assad regime.
This is a common sentiment among the internally displaced, a stoicism that’s pushing families to return to extremely dangerous areas rather than suffer humiliation as refugees.
In nearby Balyoon, another village, an air strike on a market and residential neighborhood in late February killed an 18-year-old woman from Maaret and damaged her family’s temporary home. After burying their daughter, the family was invited to spend a few nights at Ahmad’s place in Al Bara before they returned to their home in Maaret.
The girl’s mother, Um Riad, said she didn’t know what else to do. “We left Maaret to get away from the shelling and then my daughter was martyred. I would rather die in my home than in a stranger’s house,” she said.
Life in Maaret’s neighboring villages, which have functioning markets and sporadic air strikes, is undoubtedly better than in the city. After rebels cleared Assad regime forces from the city, which is in Idlib province and lies along the main highway connecting Aleppo and Damascus, many of Maaret’s markets and homes are ruined from the long battle against the nearby military base of Wadi Al-Deif.
A wrong turn in Maaret exposes people to sniper fire from Wadi Al-Deif. Shelling is also more frequent in the city, which is teeming with rebels.
Not many civilians can be seen in Maaret, and few shops are open. Akram Turk, a rebel fighter from the city, said residents are starting to trickle back, fed up with life away from home.
“Some people went to the camps along the border with Turkey [inside Syria] and returned,” he said.
Mahmoud, a Maaret resident who returned a few months ago, was pleased to find that his apartment was intact. But his shop was largely destroyed by a so-called “barrel bomb,” the do-it-yourself explosives the Assad regime has been using in lieu of the more expensive Russian rockets. The store was emptied of its contents, mainly metal tins of olive oil.
Mahmoud was told by neighbors that a local group of thieves looted the shops on that street, so he went to a rebel commander to file a complaint and was told to go to the newly established security station. “I was surprised to see the thieves there,” he said. “They admitted that they took oil worth $50 to feed rebels, but I had more than $3,000 of oil in the store. How am I going to make up for this loss?”
Some civilians in Maaret, as with virtually all the towns and cities in Syria, never left. Almost every day, a young man from the Sabouh family can be seen visiting the Martyr’s graveyard, an unplanned cemetery that was first used to inter protesters who couldn’t be buried in the regular graveyard due to the presence of government snipers.
He stops by the graves of his sisters and mother, who died when a bomb leveled their building in October during the battle for Maaret Al-Numan. The night they died, the young man had disobeyed his mother’s wishes and went to meet with rebels to get the latest news from the battlefield. Because of that, he escaped the fate that befell his family.
“It’s very sad,” Turk, the rebel fighter, said. “I think he wishes he died with them.”