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Living underground or between graves: a shelter for the displaced in northwestern Syria

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — After fleeing the regime’s continuous attack in northwestern Syria, Shams al-Din Durrah found no place to shelter except a cave dug underground. As for Yusra Hasroni, she had no choice but to live near a cemetery.

Shams Al-Din, a young man in his thirties, shares with his three brothers and their families the cave, which is like a large pit, in the village of Tiltona in the north of Idlib Governorate, two weeks after they fled their village in the eastern province’s countryside, which is being bombed violently.

“We are staying against our will,” Shamsuddin, a bearded young man and father of eight, told AFP.

He added, “We were displaced under the airstrikes. We went out with our souls and nothing with us.” He explained, “We went out looking for shelter and we did not have tents (…) We stayed in the mosque for two days and then we found this cave, we cleaned it and we resorted to it, we are four families.”

Shams al-Din and his brothers covered the entrance to the cave, which the villagers dug as a shelter for them in an agricultural field, with a piece of cloth, and placed next to it a solar panel.

In the cave, the family placed a large carpet on the floor as well as mattresses and pillows, and in one corner the items piled on top of each other with a red covering protecting them from dust.

The time for food comes, a number of the family’s children gather around a tray on which bowls of labnah, olives and thyme are placed, eating in the dark in a pit that does not reach the sun.

“We suffer from moisture, and children get sick, let alone insects,” he says.

Nevertheless, there is no way for them but this cave.

“We have no alternative.”

The military escalation of the regime forces and its ally Russia in the Idlib governorate and its surroundings since the beginning of December has pushed about 900,000 people to be displaced.

The largest portion of the displaced people are taking refuge mainly in densely populated areas in the camps near the Turkish border in northern Idlib. Many of them did not find tents to house them or rent homes, so they had to remain in the open, in their cars, or in abandoned buildings under construction, in schools, and in mosques.

The camps are largely overcrowded. Some took refuge in random camps where they set up tents without basic services such as latrines, according to the United Nations, which indicated that many are burning as much of their clothing or even their furniture for heating.

About 170,000 of these displaced people live “in the open or in buildings under construction,” according to the United Nations, which has called for avoiding “the biggest humanitarian horror of the twenty-first century” by reaching a ceasefire.

Abu Muhammad, a displaced person from western Aleppo, where the regime forces recently focused their offensive, shares a cave in Telunah with seven other families.

“We came to the cave at two o’clock after midnight, and it was dirty and had animal feces,” said Abu Muhammad.

Over the past weeks, reporters of France Press in the Idlib governorate have seen cars crowded with people fleeing in the dark, despite the low temperatures.

In this cave, jars of supplies that families carried with them were put aside, as well as pots and household utensils packed in bags.

Lady Ali Wabour cooks a small gas cut of mortadella, adding crushed tomatoes to it, and turns it over the fire.

“The villagers told us that there are snakes and scorpions in the cave, but we were forced to stay there, so we have no alternative,” Abu Muhammad said.

– “Fear of death” –

In Sarmada, in the northern countryside of Idlib, more than 60 families are crowded into the chapel of the city’s cemetery.

In the morning, children play among the tombstones, and men and women sit on green grass or on plastic chairs chatting.

As for the Al Musalla hall, it was divided into two parts, one for women and one for men. The screams of children rise and mix with side conversations between their parents.

In the corners of the hall, the necessities accumulated mattresses, blankets, etc., and washing ropes on which children’s clothes were hung.

“There are many families inside the chapel (…) some of them are afraid to live near the graves,” said Yusra Harsouni, who fled from the city of Jericho, south of Idlib, while sitting near a grave.

She recounts an incident that occurred a day ago when a terrified child woke up screaming because of the fear of housing near the graves, until his family thought that “the jinn wore him (…) and a sheikh came to him who read the Qur’an.”

But Yousra, who moved with her son’s family to the chapel, used to live near the graves after spending ten days there.

“Dwelling between graves raises fear and fear of death,” said Yusra, but she adds, “There is nothing that compels you to bitter but more bitter than it.”

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