BUT.The Dnan al-Hamdo area has fallen into ruins, with houses destroyed by gunfire or shelling. The shops are empty or shuttered. The fields nearby are trellises because the farmers have left.
His city is located on the front line between Syrian rebels and government forces. His neighbors and millions of others from the central and southern province of Idlib have fled to relatively safe areas to the north, along the Turkish border, where camps for displaced persons have grown into cities.
But Hamdo stood firm, even as his city around him disintegrated. “God knows the situation could escalate,” he said in a recent interview in his spacious, vacant living room, when neighbors told him about the last mortar shelling of the city. “It’s better than camp.”
After years of hesitation and stalemate from the international community over the fate of Idlib, one of the last rebel-held areas in Syria, the province is transforming. Residential neighborhoods and markets are growing in what were once huge olive groves along the Turkish border as Idlib’s center of gravity shifts from south to north. There schools are filled with students, in some places there is electricity. Endless traffic jams.
By comparison, other parts of Idlib appear to be abandoned, in an arc that runs from the east, near the city of Aleppo, along nerve front lines in the south, and to the city of Jisr al-Shugur, which is on the road that leads to the coast. in the south, abandoned by the conflict between the rebels and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which for years has tried to reclaim the breakaway province.
Behind the transformation of Idlib is the relentless, years-long displacement of millions of Syrians from across the country, many of whom fled their homes several times before entering the enclave. If the north of the province appears to be a fast-growing city, for many it is a wretched city filled with people who survive on donations from humanitarian organizations while waiting to return to their homes. Now many are digging, one cinder block at a time.
The UN Security Council’s decision this month to continue the flow of humanitarian aid to the province for another year has done little to ease the feeling of instability here. The vote was taken the day before the termination of supplies of humanitarian aid.
The United States and Russia hailed it as a rare example of cooperation. Earlier, Russia threatened to veto any resolution on aid.
But as a result of the vote, Idlib is stuck in place: a seething, fragile and unsolved riddle.
The confrontation in the province lasts for years. Idlib, a stronghold of opposition to the government, has been controlled by Islamist extremist rebels with links to al-Qaeda since 2015.
Assad’s forces, backed by Russian aviation, launched a series of offensive operations to retake the province. The latter began in December 2019 and ended in a ceasefire months after Turkey, which supports some rebel groups, sent thousands of its troops to Idlib, largely to prevent refugees from moving across the border.
According to the UN, one million people have settled in the area covering parts of northern Idlib, close to the border with Turkey. Rough timber scaffolding marks the creation of new construction sites. Local markets are bursting with eggplants and onions, watermelons and cherries. Motorcycles compete with trailers with trailers for space on uneven roads.
In previous years, Atma, a large camp for displaced persons, was called by the locals a camp for those “stuck at the border”. For some, it was an intermediate station before attempting an illegal crossing to Turkey.
When Ahmed al-Hijazi arrived there in 2013, there were several hundred families in tents. Five years ago, about 13,000 families lived in what the United Nations calls the Atma Cluster. Now there are more than 30 thousand families, or about 160 thousand people. “It has become a city,” Hijazi said.
When people lost hope of returning to their cities and villages, like him, they began to build houses. Hijazi, who works for a non-profit organization, built a two-bedroom home for about $ 10,000. The wealthy built two- and three-story buildings. The construction boom spawned several jobs, but they were paying just over $ 3 a day. Most of the people were unemployed, many were stuck in tents.
There is no electricity in Atma, but a new Syrian company recently served other parts of northern Idlib, as well as the provincial capital. There were plans, as yet unrealized, to repair and expand local roads to cope with heavy traffic.
More and more, the region feels like a province of Turkey, with the Turkish lira used as the local currency, along with the dollar, and cellular services available on the Turkish network. A Turkish non-governmental organization is building tens of thousands of houses in the region.
“This is turning into what looks like a permanent situation,” said Darin Khalifa, senior analyst for Syria at the International Crisis Group.
Turkey is trying to create favorable living conditions so that people do not cross its border. Even Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the militant Islamist group that controls Idlib, is seeking to stabilize the area, Khalifa said, mainly to convince Western countries and other foreign donors that it has shaken off its extremist roots and deserves international recognition.
For many Syrians, stability is a weak ointment. “We have no hope of returning to our homes in the near future – not the next 10 years,” said Hijazi, whose house in southern Idlib was destroyed.
The truce in Idlib looks fragile because of the city of Hamdo, called Maarat al-Nasan, where insurgents and government forces occupy positions just a few miles apart. On the day reporters visited earlier this month, government forces fired at a group of civilians who had gathered at a water station on the outskirts of the city, local residents said. This time no one was hurt.
Hamdo downplayed the danger by calling it something other than a fight. “There are minor clashes,” he said. His main concern was that tensions elsewhere in Idlib would have a domino effect: if government forces move to reclaim territory in the west, rebels in his city in eastern Idlib will provoke a clash to distract them.
The surge in violence over the past few weeks has seemed ominous. Clashes took place on the front lines in southern Idlib. Since late last week, 13 children have died in Syrian government missile and artillery attacks on civilian areas in Idlib and the Aleppo countryside, Save the Children said in a statement. Rescuers and the conflict monitoring team said they were among dozens of civilians killed in recent attacks. The escalation of this escalation made locals fearful that a larger military confrontation was brewing.
However, Hamdo seems to have decided to stay at his home.
It has little electricity other than solar panels – enough to power some lights and “sometimes a fan,” he said. He laughed when asked how he powered the refrigerator. Without electricity, there was no need for a refrigerator. Once he was moved, and while he was away, someone stole all the doors in his house. There was nothing else to take.
For a while after the announcement of the ceasefire last year, “everything seemed almost normal,” he said. When they got hot again, people like Hamdo, who had returned from the camps, again refused to leave their homes. They had property to protect. They needed to keep their sanity.
A recent study by the International Rescue Committee found evidence of an alarming rise in suicide rates in northwest Syria, with a majority of respondents saying the causes included depression and mental health problems or domestic violence against women. According to the IRC, 53% said the suicides were “due to a loss of hope given the ongoing crisis and worsening conditions.”
“Those who returned left a dire situation in the camps,” Hamdo said.
Like Hamdo, Faiha Shaheen was able to return home – about two years ago, to the city of Ariha – after being displaced for a while due to the fighting. But she was found again. She said that this month, four of her daughters were injured in a blow to their home while Shaheen was absent from work.
Her youngest, 8-year-old Baylasan Hindawi, was in danger of losing his leg, doctors at Al-Shifa Hospital in Idlib said. The other two daughters were in the same hospital. Another was in the intensive care unit of the second hospital.
Difficulties clung to her family. Her husband was arrested by the government shortly after the uprising against the Assad government in 2011 and was never heard from again. She and her children were injured by shrapnel in a previous airstrike. The house hit quite recently, was rented out, there were ruins.
Other displaced families in Idlib took refuge on the rocky hillsides, under olive trees, on an old railroad embankment that prevented water from accumulating in tents. Shahin’s house is still a hospital, and she didn’t really think about what would happen next.
“I have two daughters in the intensive care unit,” she said. “I don’t think about anything else.”
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