IDLIB, Syria – Among the millions of Syrians who fled when the government bombed their cities, destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones, there are 150 families squatting in a football stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, taking refuge in ramshackle tents under the bleachers or on the rocky patio.
Work is scarce and terror seizes them every time planes fly overhead: new airstrikes could take place at any moment. But fear of government retaliation prevents them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps dot Syria’s last strongholds under rebel control, devouring farmland, sprawling along irrigation canals and filling lots next to apartment buildings where refugee families occupy damaged windowless units.
“People will stay in these places with all the catastrophes before going to live under the Bashar al-Assad regime,” said Okba al-Rahoum, the camp manager at the football stadium.
On a rare visit to Idlib province, examples abound of shocked and impoverished people trapped in murky and often violent limbo. Trapped between a wall to prevent them from crossing the nearby border with Turkey and a hostile government that could strike at any moment, they struggle to meet their basic needs in territory controlled by a militant group previously linked to Al Qaeda.
In the decade since the war in Syria began, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces crushed the communities that rebelled against him, and millions of people fled to new lives of uncertainty, in neighboring countries, Europe and parts of Syria. outside of al-Assad. grip, including the rebel-controlled northwest.
The Syrian leader has made clear that these people do not fit his conception of victory, and few are likely to return while he remains in power, making the fate of the displaced one of the thorniest pieces of the unfinished business of the war. .
“The question is: What is the future for these people?” said Mark Cutts, United Nations deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria. “They cannot go on living forever in muddy fields under olive trees on the side of the road.”
Throughout the war, the rebel-held northwest became the destination of last resort for Syrians who had nowhere else to go. The government brought them here after conquering their villages. They arrived with trucks full of blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with few possessions other than the clothes they were wearing.
Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people to the area.
About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people in the northwest, one of the last two swaths of territory held by a rebel movement that once controlled much of Syria, have fled other parts of the country. That influx has transformed a pastoral strip of farming villages into a dense conglomerate of makeshift settlements with overloaded infrastructure and displaced families crammed into every available space.
After the fighting consumed his hometown, Akram Saeed, a former police officer, fled to the Syrian village of Qah near the Turkish border in 2014 and settled on land overlooking olive groves in a valley below. Since then, he has watched waves of his countrymen pour into that valley, where olive trees gave way to a densely packed tent camp.
“In the last year, all of Syria ended up here,” Saeed said. “Only God knows what will come in the future.”
Humanitarian organizations working to contain hunger and infectious diseases, including Covid-19, have struggled to get enough help in the area. And that effort could become more difficult if Russia, al-Assad’s closest international ally, blocks a United Nations resolution that will be renewed this summer to keep a border crossing with the Northwest open to international aid.
Further complicating the international dilemma over helping Idlib is the dominant role of the militant rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS.
The group grew out of the Nusra Front, a jihadist organization that declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda early in the war and distinguished itself by its copious use of suicide bombers against government and civilian targets.
Turkey, the United States and the United Nations consider HTS a terrorist organization, despite the fact that their leaders publicly distanced themselves from Al Qaeda in 2016 and have since downplayed its jihadist roots. Those efforts were clear in Idlib, where flags, badges and graffiti announcing the group’s presence were absent, despite residents often cautiously referring to it as “the group that controls the area.”
Unlike the Islamic State, the terrorist group that fought against rebels and the government to control an expanse of territory that straddles the Syrian-Iraqi border, HTS is not pushing for the immediate creation of an Islamic state and it does not have morality police officers to enforce strict social codes.
During a tour of the group’s front-line positions, a military spokesman calling himself Abu Khalid al-Shami led reporters down a dirt stairway hidden in a bunker to a long underground tunnel that led to a network of trenches and manned firing points. by fighters.
“The regime is like that, that’s how the Russians are and the Iranian militias are there,” he said, pointing across the green fields to where the group’s enemies were entrenched.
When asked how the group was different from its predecessor, the Qaeda franchise, he considered it part of the broader rebel movement seeking to overthrow al-Assad.
To manage the area, HTS helped establish the Syrian Salvation Government, which has more than 5,000 employees and 10 ministries, including justice, education and agriculture, administration chief Ali Keda said in an interview.
It is not internationally recognized and struggles to meet the overwhelming needs of the area.
Critics dismiss the administration as a civilian facade that allows a banned group to interact with foreign organizations; They accuse him and HTS of arresting critics and shutting down activities that conflict with their strict Islamic views.
Last month, Rania Kisar, the Syrian-American director of SHINE, an educational organization, urged a group of women at an event in Idlib to reject polygamous marriages, which are allowed by Islamic law.
The next day, gunmen closed SHINE’s office and threatened to jail its manager, Kisar said.
An administration spokesman, Melhem al-Ahmad, confirmed had closed the office “until further notice” after considering Ms. Kisar’s words “an insult to public sentiment and morals.”
A spokesperson for HTS said aid organizations and the media were free to work within “a revolutionary framework” that upholds the rules and does not go beyond what is allowed.
An advance by government forces last year increased pressure on Idlib’s already tense services.
At a maternity hospital in the city of Idlib, Dr. Ikram Haboush recalled giving birth to three or four babies a day before the war. Now, because so many doctors have fled and there are so few facilities, he often oversees 15 deliveries a day.
The hospital is overcrowded and lacks the means to handle difficult cases.
“Sometimes we have babies that are born prematurely, but we have nowhere to put them and when we can transfer them to Turkey, the child is dead,” he said.
Since last year, a ceasefire between Russia and Turkey has stopped fighting in Idlib, but one day last month there were three attacks. A projectile hit a refugee camp; an airstrike set fire to a fuel depot on the Turkish border; and three artillery shells hit a village hospital in Al Atarib, killing seven patients, including an orphan boy who had gone to vaccinate, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports the facility.
While those displaced from the area struggle to survive, others try to provide simple pleasures.
In the city of Idlib, the Disneyland restaurant draws visitors to dine on salads and grilled meat, and forget their troubles with video games, bumper cars, air hockey and stuffed animal claw machines.
The basement warehouse doubles as a shelter when the government bombs nearby, and the terrace is enclosed with plastic sheeting instead of glass so it won’t shatter on diners if something explodes nearby.
The manager, Ahmed Abu Kheir, lost his job at a tourist restaurant that closed when the war started, he said, so he opened a smaller place that was later destroyed by government bombing.
He opened another restaurant, but left it when the government seized the area last year and fled to Idlib.
Like all IDPs from Idlib, he wanted to bring his family home, but was happy to work in a place that, in the meantime, conveyed a bit of joy.
“We are convinced that normal life has to continue,” he said. “We want to live.”