IDLIB, Syria – Among the millions of Syrians who fled as the government bombed their cities, destroyed homes and killed their loved ones, 150 families are crouching at a football stadium in the northwestern city of Idlib, sheltering in shaky tents under grandstands or in a rocky courtyard.
There is little work, and terror catches them whenever planes buzz above them: new air strikes can come at any time. But fears of government retaliation are preventing them from returning home. More than 1,300 similar camps are under the last rebel-controlled Syrian bastions, eating agricultural land, stretching along irrigation canals and filling plots next to apartment buildings where refugee families crouch in damaged windowless units.
“People will stay in these places with all the disasters before they go live under the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” said Okba al-Rahoum, camp manager at the football stadium.
During a rare visit to Idlib province, there were many examples of shocked and impoverished people trapped in a murky and often violent limbo. Stuck between a wall to prevent them from fleeing across the nearby border with Turkey and an enemy government that could attack at any moment, they fight to secure basic needs in territory controlled by a militant group previously linked to Al Qaeda.
In the decade since the start of the Syrian war, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have crushed the communities that rebelled against him, and millions have fled to new lives of uncertainty – to neighboring countries, Europe and Syria’s pockets outside of Mr. al-Assad’s intervention, including the northwest under the control of the rebels.
The Syrian leader has made it clear that these people do not fit into his conception of victory, and there are few who are likely to return as long as he remains in power, making the fate of the displaced one of the dirtiest parts of the unfinished business in the war.
“The question is: What is the future of these people?” said Mark Cutts, United Nations Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria. “I can’t go on living forever in the muddy fields under the olive trees by the roadside.”
Throughout the war, the rebel-held northwest became the last resort for the Syrians, who no longer had a place. The government employed them here after they conquered their cities. They arrived in trucks loaded with blankets, mattresses and children. Some arrived on foot, with little possessions other than the clothes they wore.
Last year, an offensive by the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, pushed nearly a million more people into the area.
About 2.7 million of the 4.2 million people in the northwest, one of the last two belts of territory held by a rebel movement that once controlled much of Syria, have fled other parts of the country. That influx transformed the pastoral belt of agricultural villages into a dense conglomeration of makeshift settlements with strained infrastructure and displaced families crammed into every available space.
After fighting engulfed his hometown, Akram Saeed, a former police officer, fled to the Syrian village of Qah near the Turkish border in 2014 and settled on land overlooking olive groves in the valley below. From then on, he watched the waves of his countrymen flow into that valley, where the olive trees gave way to a densely packed tent camp.
“For the last year, the whole of Syria has ended up here,” Mr Saeed said. “Only God knows what will come in the future.”
Humanitarian organizations working to fight hunger and infectious diseases, including Covid-19, have struggled to get enough help to the area. And that effort could become more difficult if Russia, Mr al-Assad’s closest international ally, blocks a United Nations reconstruction resolution this summer to keep one border crossing with the northwest open to international aid.
A further complication of the international dilemma over helping Idlib is the dominant role of the militant rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or HTS
The group originated from the Nusra Front, a jihadist organization that declared its allegiance to Al Qaeda early in the war and distinguished itself by the abundant use of suicide bombers against government and civilian targets.
Turkey, the United States and the United Nations consider the HTS a terrorist organization, although its leaders publicly distanced themselves from Al Qaeda in 2016 and have since diminished their jihadist roots. These efforts were clear around Idlib, where flags, signs and graffiti announcing the group’s presence were not present, although residents cautiously called it a “group controlling the area”.
Unlike Islamic State, a terrorist group that fought both insurgents and the government to control the vastness of the Syrian-Iraqi border, the HTS does not advocate the immediate creation of an Islamic state and does not enforce moral police officers to enforce strict social codes.
During a tour of the group’s front lines, a military spokesman passing by nom de guerre Abu Khalid al-Shami took reporters down a dirty staircase hidden in a bunker to a long underground tunnel leading to a network of trenches and firing positions manned by fighters.
“The regime is like that, the Russians are like this, and the Iranian militias are there,” he said, pointing across the green fields to the places where the group’s enemies are buried.
When asked how the group differs from its predecessor, the Qaeda franchise, he gave it up as part of a broader rebel movement trying to overthrow Mr al-Assad.
To manage the area, the HTS has helped establish the Syrian government of salvation, which has more than 5,000 employees and 10 ministries, including justice, education and agriculture, administration chief Ali Keda said in an interview.
It is not internationally recognized and is struggling to meet the huge needs of the area.
Critics dismiss the administration as a civilian facade that allows a banned group to communicate with foreign organizations; they accuse her and the HTS of holding back critics and shutting down activities seen in conflict with his strict Islamic views.
Last month, Rania Kisar, Syrian-American director SOW, an educational organization, called on a group of women at an event in Idlib to reject polygamous marriages, which are allowed under Islamic law.
The next day, armed men closed SHINE’s office and threatened to imprison the manager, Ms. Kisar said.
A spokesman for the administration, Melhem al-Ahmad, confirmed he closed the office “until further notice” after calling Ms Kisar’s words “an insult to public feeling and morals”.
A HTS spokesman said that humanitarian and media organizations are free to work in a “revolutionary framework” that respects norms and does not exceed what is allowed.
Progress by government forces last year increased pressure on Idlib’s already tense services.
In the city maternity hospital Idlib, dr. Ikram Haboush recalled giving birth to three or four babies a day before the war. Now that so many doctors have escaped and there are so few facilities, she often monitors 15 births a day.
The hospital is crowded and lacks the resources to deal with difficult cases.
“Sometimes we have babies born prematurely, but we have nowhere to put them and while we can transfer them to Turkey, the baby is dead,” she said.
Since last year, a ceasefire between Russia and Turkey has stopped a direct fight in Idlib, but one day last month there were three attacks. The grenade hit a refugee camp; an airstrike set fire to a fuel depot on the Turkish border; and three artillery shells hit a village hospital in Al Atarib, killing seven patients, including an orphan who had been vaccinated, according to the Syrian-American Medical Association, which supports the facility.
Although displaced people in the area are struggling to survive, others are trying to provide simple pleasures.
In the city of Idlib, the Disneyland restaurant entices visitors to dine on salads and grilled meats, while forgetting their troubles with video games, cars with bumpers, air hockey and claw machines with stuffed animals.
The basement storage also serves as a shelter when the government shells nearby, and the terrace is covered with plastic wrap instead of glass, so it won’t fall apart at dineries if something explodes nearby.
Manager Ahmed Abu Kheir lost his job at a tourist restaurant that closed when the war broke out, he said, so he opened a smaller place that was later destroyed by government shelling.
He opened another restaurant but left it when the government seized the area last year and fled to Idlib.
Like all displaced Idlibi, he longed to take his family home, but he was glad to work in a place that had meanwhile spread a little joy.
“We are convinced that normal life must continue,” he said. “We want to live.”