“The hardest part is not knowing where to go,” says Ahlam, who asked that her full name not be used. “People are fleeing the bombing, but they are going nowhere.”
“When you ask people on the road where they are going, nobody knows. They just know that there are no safe places anymore, so it is better to keep moving.” Her voice is strong but laced with exhaustion.
Ahlam coordinates humanitarian support for World Vision Syria in the country’s northwest Idlib province. She has just returned from her shift distributing bread in the basements of buildings in the countryside west of Aleppo, in areas not yet reached by Syrian government forces.
In one, she found 20 families trying to shelter together from the bombings. “All the families are in one room, there is no food, no toilets,” she says. “There were more than 25 children there, so when we heard of the situation, we knew we must try to help.”
‘Children are freezing to death’
Ahlam has remained in Idlib province throughout Syria’s war. Last week, she witnessed the Syrian army entering her town, Maaret al-Numan, which is located on the M5 motorway connecting Aleppo to Damascus. Both a strategic location and one of the symbolic centres of the anti-regime protests, it was the first time the army entered the town since opposition fighters overthrew them in 2012. She says she has never seen the situation as desperate as it is now.
Since December 2019, the Syrian government has renewed its military operations to take over the last opposition stronghold, shelling Idlib’s countryside with the backing of Russian air raids. The United Nations has reported that more than 800,000 people have been displaced in the last two months; 143,000 of them in the last week alone. They are heading towards the closed Turkish border.
“People are sleeping in cars on the side of the road, or under trees,” Ahlam says. “Children are literally freezing to death.”
With night temperatures dropping below zero and tents covered in snow, many have nothing to warm themselves with but rubbish and old clothes – sometimes with tragic consequences.
On February 11, Mustafa, his wife Amoun, their daughter Huda and their three-year-old granddaughter, Hoor, were found dead in the village of Killi, poisoned by carbon monoxide. Mustafa had brought a gas heater inside their makeshift tent, in a desperate attempt to keep his family warm.
Just two days later, on February 13, people in Idlib started sharing a picture of one-and-a-half-year-old Iman Mahmoud Laila on their Facebook pages. She had died as her father was carrying her to Shefaa Hospital in Afrin. When he noticed Iman was having trouble breathing, her father had wrapped her in blankets and strapped her to his body, hoping to keep her warm.
He walked for two hours from his shelter near M’a’rata where he had gone when he fled Russian and Syrian bombing in Eastern Ghouta. When he arrived at the hospital, Iman had been dead for at least an hour. The doctors said she had frozen to death.