Darkush, Syria – He fled because of the fighting with his wife and eight children. The plan was to get to Turkey and seek shelter in a refugee camp. They never made it: the Turks turned them back at the border three times.
Instead, Abu Mohammed settled in a village near Darkush, in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, six months ago after finding an abandoned house. The building of pale stone, nestled among olive groves near the whorling water of the Orontes River, is now where his family calls home.
“When we heard that the battle would start, we had no time to do anything – just to leave,” he says. “There was so much killing.”
It was the second time the 48-year-old and his family had been displaced, as rebels and government forces slugged it out in his city of Jisr al-Shughur. That first time, he said, the family returned to find their house looted and ransacked.
“We lost everything,” said Mohammed.
Throughout Syria, internally displaced persons (IDPs) eke out a fragile existence. Staying with relatives or in abandoned properties, moving through fields and along roads. And always they are stalked by the bitter war that has torn this country apart the past 26 months, claiming about 90,000 lives, laying waste to infrastructure, and threatening to ignite a broader, regional confrontation.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that some 4.5 million Syrians have been displaced within Syria’s borders as the country’s internecine conflict grinds on, exacting its brutal toll. In Idlib province alone, 300,000 IDPs struggle to survive.
“IDPs have often been the invisible and forgotten victims of this brutal conflict … and [are] largely sidelined by the political wrangling between all parties to the conflict and their international backers,” said Donatella Rovera from Amnesty International in recent release.
During the first quarter of 2013, Syria’s IDP population doubled, prompting OCHA to issue an appeal for US$4.4bn in funding to meet the demands of supporting displaced Syrians.
There are 1.25 million displaced in the main city Aleppo, in the Eastern Hasakeh province fringing the Iraqi border 207,000 people have been forced from their homes, while neighbouring ar-Raqqa is host to some 230,000 IDPs.
In the rural areas surrounding the capital, Damascus, 705,200 people are displaced and more than one million are in need of aid.
Fuel and food prices prices are soaring with wheat production down, silos destroyed and farmers fleeing. The Syrian pound has shed 115 percent of its value. Fears continue to mount that Syria’s internally displaced will go hungry with aid agencies unable to reach many in need because of security risks.
“The Syrian crisis has resulted in heightened vulnerability, massive movements of the population inside the country and a substantial setback in living conditions,” the UN Food and Agriculture and World Food Programme said in a joint report earlier this month.
“Economic decline, the loss of jobs and livelihood, as well as the impact of economic sanctions have increased vulnerability among large sections of society.”
As the long hot Levantine summer drags on, people displaced by the war are particularly at risk of communicable disease, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Measles and acute diarrhea cases are increasing, and WHO has warned the likelihood of outbreaks of water-borne diseases – typhoid, cholera and hepatitis – among IDP populations is high.
“We don’t have the tools or medicine we need,” said Dr Ahmed Khateeb from Orient Hospital near Yacoubiyeh, a Christian village in Idlib province.
The hospital – shelled earlier this month – treated 1,938 patients in June, ranging from common colds to multiple trauma wounds sustained from flying shrapnel.
“We do our best but are limited by what resources are available,” said Khateeb.
The house Mohammed and his family settled in belonged to an Alawite family, supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The family fled as rebel brigades – now largely made up of ultraconservative Sunni Muslims – consolidated control over Idlib’s farmlands.
Yet the provincial capital, the city of Idlib, remains firmly under government control, locked down. The government is taking the fight hard to the rebels, seeking to drive them from farms in the country’s north, away from the Alawite hinterland.
Assad is looking to secure the border areas with Turkey and Idlib, cutting off arms supplies and the movement of foreign fighters into and out of the country. The regime’s warplanes have bombarded rebel positions and villages throughout Idlib province in recent weeks, while its troops seek to secure fresh positions.
Widowed Um Kamel, 38, lives on a property with her six daughters on the outskirts of Darkush, in the foothills of the an-Nusayriyah Mountains. They walked out of Jisr al-Shughour six months ago amid shelling and gunfire, as the regime and rebels battled in the streets.
Kamel said she has received just two packages of aid since – some flour and sugar. But her biggest concern is that her daughters are missing out on their education, as there are no functioning schools in the area.
“The situation is the same for all of us, whether or not we are for or against the regime, or whether or not we are Sunni or Alawi,” she says. “None of us know if we’ll ever go home again.”
Idlib is a patchwork of villages of different sects. Alawites, Sunnis and Christians previously shared the land, but as Syria’s war took on increasingly sectarian dimensions, it proved a combustible mix.
Yet for Mohammed, that is of little consequence.
“I don’t care about them, or feel sorry for them,” he says. “The Alawites are very bad. They are all shabiha [government-backed militia].”
In the furniture-less home, thin flower-print mattresses lay on the floor, and torn-out electrical cables hang from the walls. The window glass is gone, as are the doors. A copy of the Muslim holy book the Koran hangs from a wall. A toddler – one of Mohammed’s daughters – crawls along the floor.
“We have received one parcel of aid from Germany over the past six months,” said Mohammed, with a beard shot through with wisps of grey. “There is no electricity, no water. Food is too expensive, there is nothing at all. We can’t go to Turkey and we can’t go home. What do we do?”