War forcing average Syrian families to be constantly on the move
KAFAR HAMRA, Syria — Civil war has chased Fatima Ghorab and her brood of some two dozen women and children across Syria in search of safe havens that keep disappearing in the booms of artillery shells. They now shelter in an unfinished apartment in this Aleppo suburb, crowded into two rooms with a few plastic chairs and some thin mattresses. If their neighbors didn't bring them bread, they'd have none.
As her daughters and daughters-in-law and their kids tuck into a simple lunch of tomatoes and cucumbers, canned meat and apricot jam, the 56-year-old housewife from Damascus struggles to comprehend what has become of her life.
"Before all this we were living well," said Ghorab, whose family ran a supermarket in the capital until it and their home were torched during a government attack on rebels.
"Our house was full and our shop was full. Now we're 100 degrees below zero."
Across Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have been thrown into a life on the move by the widening fight between President Bashar Assad's forces and rebels seeking to end his rule.
Some 1.2 million people are displaced inside Syria, according to the United Nations, on top of a quarter-million who have fled to neighboring countries.
Many have picked up and fled multiple times, pushed from town to town by fighting. When they find a place that appears safe, they pile into half-built apartment buildings or sleep on tile floors in schools or on the dirt in olive groves. In tow, they bring shell-shocked children who wet their beds, get nosebleeds and vomit when they hear explosions or fighter jets.
For many, no place feels safe as the regime ramps up its use of attack helicopters and fighter jets, carrying out near daily airstrikes on towns and villages. While some towns are largely destroyed and empty, others are packed. One day, villagers watch refugees from elsewhere flood in. The next day, they themselves load their belongings into rented trucks and clear out.
Ghorab's turmoil began several months ago, when three of her sons were arrested for anti-regime protests. They were freed, but then her husband was arrested.
When he was released, his feet were so swollen from beatings he couldn't walk, Ghorab said. Then last month, security forces torched the family's home and supermarket during an assault to push rebels from their battle zone neighborhood of Tadamon.
By that time, Ghorab had already fled with her daughters and daughters-in-law, fearing they could be arrested too.
They went first to Aleppo, 200 miles to the north. The city, Syria's largest, had been quiet for most of the 17-month-old uprising. But then last month, rebel fighters pushed into Aleppo and the government tried to bomb them out, turning the city into a war zone.
So Ghorab and her family fled once more, to nearby Kafar Hamra. They have little money, and all their men remain in the cities to protect their remaining properties from thieves.
"I have to take care of all these women and children, and there are no men here and no money," Ghorab said.
Her family has it better than some. Nearby, a public school is packed with some 15 families who fled the town of Anadan, which regime forces have reduced to a rubble-strewn ghost town.
More than 17 months of violence in Syria have ravaged entire communities across this country of 22 million and killed more than 20,000 people, according to anti-regime activists.
Recent months have been particularly bloody as rebel forces have grown more adept at attacking government troops and pushed the battle into the country's two biggest cities — Aleppo in the north and the capital Damascus. In retaliation, the regime has turned increasingly to air power.
But no community has been left unaffected, whether by rising prices for food and fuel, destruction brought by fighting or influxes of civilians.
Every morning in the tiny village of Sawran near the Turkish border, hundreds of men and boys form long, dense lines that snake from the two windows of a small bakery under the glare of the sun. Most of them have fled to the area from Aleppo or from largely destroyed towns further south and now sleep in schools or farmhouses, often 10 to a room.
Ali Jassem, a stonemason, brought his family from Aleppo and hasn't worked in two months. He said he can barely afford bread, much less gas for his car, so he walks 5 miles each morning to the bakery, waits in line for an hour, then walks back to the farmhouse of friend where he is staying.
"The hardest part is food and poverty because there is no work anywhere," he said. Minutes later, a fight broke out in the line and men rushed to intervene.
"This happens all the time," Jassem said with a shrug. "It's chaos."
For Mariam, a 42-year-old mother of four, life has become a series of rushed moves whose end has yet to come.
Three months ago, Syrian forces started firing occasional artillery shells at her home village of Mayer, north of Aleppo, she said. Residents guessed their Sunni Muslim village was targeted because they live near a Shiite village that supports Assad's regime.
At first, the family would sleep in nearby fields, but the shelling continued, so they moved to Aleppo.
Then Aleppo's fighting erupted, and neighborhoods were consumed by fighting between rebels and government forces. Mariam's family moved three times inside the city, and finally returned to Mayer.
"We decided that if we were going to get shelled, it might as well be in our own house," she said. The family had also run out of money to rent places to stay.
The shells continued to fall and the family slept in an underground storeroom, though the summer heat made it sweltering. The booms terrified her children, who sometimes screamed in their sleep.
"They all started wetting their beds. Even the teenagers," said Mariam, who asked that her full name not be used for fear of reprisals against her family.
Then the fighter jets came, dropping bombs that shook the walls and destroyed buildings, so a group of families rented a vegetable truck to take them to the Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey. Most didn't have passports, making it hard to leave, so they laid out a plastic mat on the sidewalk to sleep on until they could decide what to do next.
Scores of other families had camped out nearby.
Ironically, other families have fled the same Aleppo suburb that Ghorab fled to.
Abdel-Basit Mustafa's family once ran a successful construction company in Kafar Hamra, which he said remained quiet while violence further north drove entire towns into the town.
Then the shells came their way, too.
On two successive days, several artillery shells hit the town, Mustafa said, one peppering his brother's car with shrapnel. The next day, an airstrike killed three people who had fled to the area from Aleppo.
The next day, Mustafa's family hired a truck to take them to a large olive grove along the Turkish border where many Syrians collect before entering refugee camps on the other side.
Unlike many, the family had the money to rent an apartment in Turkey, but many lacked passports, making it unsure if they could cross at all.
So they waited.
"That's our family over there," Mustafa said, pointing to a dozen women and children in the scant shade of an olive tree. "We'll probably sleep there tonight, on the dirt."
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