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Syria: living underground to escape war

SYRIA (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — In a sunny olive grove in north-west Syria, Chamseddine Darra descends a flight of steps which sink underground. Fleeing the regime’s offensive, he and his family had no choice but to settle in a cave.

The thirties share with his three brothers and their family this cramped “cave”, dug in the middle of the hilly fields of the Idleb region, near the village of Taltouna.

They abandoned their house two weeks ago in the east of this province to escape the deadly bombardments of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian ally, who resumed their attack in December against the ultimate great jihadist stronghold and rebel from Syria.

“We live here against our will,” said the Syrian with a beard.

“We didn’t have tents. We stayed in the village mosque for two days, we looked for shelter but we found nothing,” added the father of eight.

They therefore live in this unoccupied underground, dug by the villagers in the rock of the ground to take refuge there in the event of bombardments.

They live there in permanent darkness. The cellar is only lit by the light coming from the entrance. On the floor are spread a large carpet and foam mattresses.

Sitting in a circle, children and adults have breakfast, dipping a piece of bread into the plates of hummus and zaatar.

In one corner, their belongings are piled up under a red blanket. Outside, a solar panel provides some electricity.

“We suffer from the humidity, the children are sick, there are also insects,” regrets Mr. Darra, bundled up in a black hoodie.

– “No other choice” –

As a result of the violence, some 900,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of December in northwestern Syria, according to the UN.

Among them, 170,000 civilians live in the open air or in unfinished buildings because they have been unable to find accommodation or a tent in the crowded camps for the displaced.

Abou Mohamed shares with his relatives an underground cave near Taltouna, after having fled his village in the west of the neighboring province of Aleppo.

They are about forty people in total. In a corner, jars of provisions line up. The women sit on a jute rug preparing food. One of them mixes vegetables in tomato sauce with pieces of a kind of mortadella, on a gas stove.

When they arrived, “the cave was dirty, there was animal excrement” recalls Abu Mohamed.

“The inhabitants of the village warned us that there were scorpions and snakes, but we had no other choice”, deplores this forty-something man with a beard and graying hair.

AFP correspondents regularly meet with civilians forced to spend the night in their cars despite the winter temperatures, or installed in schools, mosques and even disused prisons, transformed into temporary shelters.

– “Fear of death” –

In Sarmada, in the north of Idlib, around sixty families crowd in the funeral home of a cemetery.

During the day, when the weather permits, men and women stretch their legs in the aisles, or sit in the grass with their children, near the white marble tombstones.

The large, luminous funeral hall, heated by several stoves, has been divided into two sections, one for women and one for men.

Crying infants mingle with the hubbub of conversations. Here and there, things are piled up pell-mell: mattresses, rugs, pots and pans and food supplies.

“There are a lot of families inside,” signs Yousra Hassouni, who is posed near a grave with two little ones.

She recognizes that this closeness to death causes fear.

One night, a child started to scream and people thought it was inhabited by a spirit, she says.

“The sheikh has come to read the Koran twice,” said the grandmother, wrapped in black veils that reveal only her face and her hands.

However, she resigned herself to this cohabitation.

Having fled the bombing of the city of Ariha with her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren, she has lived here for ten days.

“Of course, in the middle of the graves, there is the fear of death,” she admits. “But hey, between the plague and cholera …”, she says, fatalist.

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