Syria violence uproots displaced families again

by Omar Haj Kadour
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Children stand in the back of a truck as their father, Abu Ismail, prepares to evacuate them from the jihadist-held town of Maaret al-Numan in Syria's Idlib province

Thin mattresses, children's toys, a gas heater: Abu Ismail packed a pick-up truck with scant belongings before fleeing a northwest Syria town nearly emptied of residents by recent regime attacks.

"I don't know where I am going, if I will find a house for my family, or what will happen to us," the 42-year-old father of seven told AFP, plumes of smoke rising around him.

Tens of thousands of people like Abu Ismail have fled the Maaret al-Numan region, located in jihadist-held Idlib province, since December 16, following a rise in air strikes, according to the United Nations.

Thousands more are still trying to leave violence-plagued southern Idlib towards safer areas further north, but steady bombing has made the exit both dangerous and difficult, the UN says.

"I don't even wish this on our enemies," Abu Ismail said of the air strikes pummelling his hometown.

The Damascus government, which controls nearly 70 per cent of Syria, has repeatedly vowed to take back Idlib from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist alliance led by Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate.

Despite a ceasefire announced in August, it has intensified attacks in recent weeks and more than 280 civilians have been killed -- over 40 just in recent days.

Ground clashes with jihadists and allied rebels have also flared, leaving more than 170 dead on both sides.

The escalation has left Maaret al-Numan in ruins, with mangled metal rods, shattered glass and chunks of rubble strewn across the ground.

Bombed-out storefronts and crumbling buildings spill onto empty sidewalks.

Several health facilities have shut down, bakeries have closed and schools have mostly been suspended since late November, according to the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA.

- 'Happening all over again' -

The Idlib region hosts some three million people, more than half of whom have been displaced by years of violence in other parts of Syria.

Abu Ossama is one of them.

The 29-year-old arrived in Maaret al-Numan around two years ago after fleeing Homs province, now under the control of government forces.

Along with his wife and four children, he is once again throwing furniture, clothes and appliances into a pick-up truck.

"The same sequence is happening all over again," he told AFP.

"We are heading towards the unknown, with no house, no shelter and no assistance."

He spoke to AFP as rescue workers known as the White Helmets helped him empty his apartment in Maaret al-Numan.

The rescue group had also arranged a vehicle to drive the man and his family to safety.

"We are leaving today under shelling, fearing the warplanes that never leave the sky," Abu Ossama said.

"We don't know what danger is waiting for us on the road."

Many of those fleeing Maaret al-Numan are heading to over-stretched camps further north, near the border with Turkey.

Others are taking shelter in schools, reception halls and mosques in Idlib city and other urban centres far away from the fighting, according to OCHA.

The mass displacement could not come at a worse time of year, as heavy winter rains flood squalid camps for the displaced.

- 'Die of hunger' -

Russia and China on Friday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended for a year cross-border aid deliveries to four million Syrians, many of them in the Idlib region.

The move, slammed by the United States and aid groups, raised fears that UN-funded assistance could stop entering opposition-held parts of Syria from January unless an alternative agreement is found.

Four million Syrians, including many in Idlib, directly benefit from the deliveries, among a total of 11 million receiving international aid inside the country eight years into its devastating war.

"We only eat and drink when we receive help," said Hassan Abu Wael who has been living in a displacement camp in northern Idlib since he fled Maaret al-Numan two months ago.

"If aid stops reaching us because of Russia, while we live inside flooded camps, then we will bid farewell to this world."

Nearby, 60-year-old Umm Abdo expressed a similar concern.

"You want the people to die of hunger?" she asked rhetorically.

Children stand in the back of a truck as their father, Abu Ismail, prepares to evacuate them from the jihadist-held town of Maaret al-Numan in Syria's Idlib province

The children of Abu Ismail ride in the back of a truck as they flee bombardment in Maaret al-Numan

A building destroyed in a recent reported air strike on a residential district of Maaret al-Numan

Abu Ossama carries a sack of belongings as he prepares to flee Maaret al-Numan

White Helmet rescue volunteers help Abu Ossama pack his belongings into a truck