As the Assad regime and Russia close in on the last rebel-held province, violating Astana peace talks, survivors are once again on the road, dodging deadly attacks, and never allowed to reconcile with their trauma.
Mahmoud Abu al Fida has left his life behind several times. The Syrian regime, aided by Russia, launched an intense aerial bombing on his neighbourhood in Eastern Ghouta from March 22 to April 7 last year.
Moving from shelter to shelter wasn't easy. Fida, 27, survived four more relentless air attacks carried out by both the regime and Russia.
Although he left Eastern Ghouta on March 22 last year, the deadly air campaign followed him to Idlib as well. Rebel-held Idlib is the last bastion for all those Syrians who stood up against the rule of Bashar al Assad in 2011. Under the Astana peace process, Assad and his ally Russia are bound to observe a ceasefire so as to give peace and conflict resolution a chance.
But the Assad regime and Russia are now closing in on Idlib province, home to at least three million people, violating the spirit of the Astana accord and causing yet another large-scale displacement.
Since April 30, at least 300 airstrikes and artillery shells have targeted de-escalation areas, including Idlib, resulting in the killing of 460 civilians, including children and women, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The distressed residents of Idlib have just one option left — the Turkish-controlled Afrin district. Fearing the extension of the regime's military operation towards the heart of Idlib and the west of rebel-controlled Aleppo, many Syrians have already moved to Afrin, as they feel secure under Turkish military cover.
Fida is among those who decided to take perhaps his final refuge in Afrin. “I had to rent a car, although I only had $20 on me,” he told TRT World. “The driver asked for $35. We reached an agreement to barter the blankets and foam mattresses I had for the remaining amount.”
Fida said the nine-year war has not only produced victims and survivors but also a large network of people who exploit others in times of crisis. He calls them "crisis traders."
“I asked the driver to drive carefully because my uncle is still suffering from last year's injuries, but the driver responded angrily and said 'we must drive fast, don’t you see the warplanes hovering above us all the time? We are not going on a vacation'.”
Fida’s wife and two children and his uncle Abdullah al Asali arrived in Afrin on May 8. "My friend is temporarily hosting us for now,” he said.
Life has thrown a new set of challenges in Afrin. The absence of refugee settlements has compelled the displaced people to take up rented apartments. They received a setback with exorbitant house rents: a small squalid room costs at least $75 a month and a decent two-bedroom apartment around $300.
Although Fida is lucky to have a friend hosting him along with his family of four, he'll soon have to navigate the expensive real estate market.
He's content though that he and his family could perform Ramadan in a secure zone, insusceptible to airstrikes and loud explosions.
He's also taking care of his uncle who lost the ability to walk after he was severely injured in an aerial bombing carried out by the regime in May 2017.
But the family is yet to come to terms with the emotional turmoil they have incurred over the last few years. Whenever they felt like they were reconciling with their trauma, they were once again chased by Assad's death planes.
At times, the shelling was so intense that the family spent days inside bunkers. On March 2, after spending long hours in an underground shelter in Eastern Ghouta, Fida stepped out in desperation in the late afternoon as his wife and two children were starving inside.
"The moment I stepped onto the road, a bomb fell nearby," he told TRT World. "Then when I returned in the evening, I survived a barrel bomb attack that hit the road just a few metres away from me."
Fida’s uncle was among the last batch of survivors in Hamoryah city in Eastern Ghouta. In May 2017, his house was attacked in an aerial raid by the Syrian regime, in which he was severely injured. He underwent surgery in Eastern Ghouta but the doctors could not remove all the shrapnel from his body. Since then he has slowly lost the ability to walk. He stayed within the city, along with his wife and children until April 6, but as the air attacks showed no signs of abating, they decided to take the dangerous journey to find a safe zone.
Along the way, Asali lost touch with his wife and children. He lost them among the sea of survivors, who took different routes to steer clear of the regime and Russian fighter jets.
“I don’t know what wrong I have done in my life that I am being punished this way. I don’t deserve this,” Asali told the TRT World.
“I am certain that thousands of injured ones are suffering like me, but my real pain is being away from my wife and children. I know nothing about them.”
Each time global leaders gathered as part of the Astana peace process to address the conflict, the regime intensified its assaults on rebel-held areas.
For instance, the International Security Council voted for the cessation of attacks in the besieged Eastern Ghouta on February 24, 2017. Just seven days later, the regime and Russia launched a brutal aerial assault, killing at least 500 people and injuring 2,400, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
While military operations often translate into numbers of dead and wounded, they leave a lifelong impact on survivors.
For instance, Fida is not only comforting his injured uncle, whose family is missing since last year, but also dealing with his wife's trauma. She has lost her two brothers aged five and eleven to a chemical attack launched by the Assad regime in Eastern Ghouta on August 21, 2013. His wife's older brother, who served in Assad's army, disappeared on June 6, 2012, when the anti-Assad revolution was at its peak.
Physically and emotionally exhausted, she has been asking her husband to take her far away from the conflict.
“She has been urging me to move to Turkey,” he said. “But it’s almost impossible to cross the Turkish border these days.”