Human Rights

Bombarded by regime forces, Idlib province a 'prison for free men'



A man gazes at rubble and damaged vehicles following reported airstrikes by the Syrian regime ally Russia, in the town of Kafr Nabl in Idlib province on May 20th. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

Its south is a volatile frontline, its northern border an open-air encampment for the displaced and its centre a teeming urban jungle.

Syria's militant-controlled region of Idlib is home to some three million people who have been variously affected by a surge in regime attacks since April.

Ghost town

When the evening call to prayer rings out in the embattled town of Kafr Nabl, streets are empty and house curtains are drawn.

"It looks like a desert lit only by moonlight," said Mohammad al-Sheikh, a 28-year-old activist. "No one dares to go out."


This aerial view taken on May 8th shows displaced Syrians gathering in a field near a camp for displaced people in the village of Atme, in northern Idlib province. [Aaref Watad/AFP]


An elderly Syrian couple sits under an olive tree at a camp for internally displaced persons near the town of Aqrabat in Idlib province on June 4th. [Aaref Watad/AFP]

Located in Idlib's southern countryside, Kafr Nabl was not always a "ghost town", the activist told AFP from Kafr Nabl.

Only five months ago, its largest football field was flanked with hundreds of bustling fans during a local tournament, their loud cheers rising above the pitch.

But its residents have largely avoided open skies since the latest flare-up hit markets, hospitals, water wells, schools and bakeries over the past two months.

The violence has forced most of Kafr Nabl's 20,000 inhabitants to flee, while trapping those who remain in bunkers and homes, he added.

Al-Sheikh said he no longer goes to the mosque, fearing regime airstrikes during prayers.

Like most residents, he also avoids shopping at open-air markets because he believes they are especially vulnerable to attacks.

"You become a prisoner in your own house," he said. "It's a prison, but for free men."

Idlib -- designated a demilitarised zone in September under an agreement between Russia and Turkey -- has come under increased bombardment by the regime and its Russian ally since extremist alliance Tahrir al-Sham seized most of the province at the start of the year.

Seeking safe haven

Violence spiked in April, leaving more than 490 civilians dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The flare-up has also displaced 330,000 others, according to the UN, sparking fears of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the eight-year conflict.

In northern Idlib, near the border with Turkey, olive groves and broad rocky plains have become a safe haven for thousands of families fleeing violence.

Abdul Monem al-Shamaa, 37, lives under a tarpaulin-covered tree, along with his wife, five children and two parents.

His family fled the village of Maaret Horma in May and in June, his wife gave birth to their fifth child under an olive tree, he said.

While the area is safe from regime bombardment, it is not ideal for family life.

"There is nothing here but trees and arid land," al-Shamaa said.

He spends most of his time foraging for food, trekking at least five kilometres daily to collect handouts from NGOs and local councils, he said.

When his search turns up empty, he has to resort to the only funds he has stored away: a modest $18.

"Everything has changed," he told AFP.

"I used to live in a house, that is now destroyed," he said. "I used to sleep and my children's bellies would be full, but now, there is little sleep and a lot of hunger."

'Life goes on'

The situation is starkly different near Idlib province's eponymous capital.

Barring sporadic airstrikes on the edges of the city, the Tahrir al-Sham stronghold has been largely spared heightened attacks, which would have sent tens of thousands of people fleeing towards neighbouring Turkey.

In the town of Binnish, less than 10 kilometres away from Idlib city, "the markets are bustling, the people are out on the streets and in restaurants," said Khayriya Ninal, a 22-year-old teacher.

It is even more crowded now after thousands of displaced people moved closer to the capital in recent weeks fleeing the violence, she said.

"People abroad think that bombardment means that life stops," Ninal told AFP. "Sometimes it is like this, but people also tend to resume their lives in a strangely quick way."

She gave the example of her house which was hit by an airstrike last year, only a few days before Eid al-Fitr.

"We celebrated anyway when Eid arrived," she said.

Even now, in light of heightened attacks on the region, she said she is busy planning her brother's wedding next month.

"Life goes on," Ninal said.

But the shadow of a feared government assault looms large.

"We keep trying to rush the wedding so that it can happen before violence spills into my area," she said.

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