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Syria

Syrians seek safety at home

While tens of thousands of Syrians have fled the conflict to find refuge in neighboring countries, the number of those who have been forced from their homes but stayed in Syria has risen dramatically.

Surrounded by a group of hungry teenagers, a woman in her late-40s finally takes the first batch of potatoes out of the saucepan. Dinner boils down to some kind of potato wrap - yet youngsters point out that's an improvement from the night before. The family of 22 hunkered down the basement of a school nearby all evening after shelling started. Bread was all they had.

Water and electricity are often cut off in Ma'at Masrin, a town North of Idlib under control of the Free Syrian Army. The only bottles of gas on the market are smuggled from Turkey, and sold at a prohibitive price. Grocery stores open sporadically. Om Sutey says she barely managed to cope through spring and early summer. Then in July, her sister's family fled Aleppo and found refuge in her home. Overnight, Om Sutey's household increased fivefold, but not her resources.

Syrian woman cooks potatoes Foto: Marine Olivesi, August 2012

Potatoes is all Soubheya has to feed her family, which has ballooned to 22 after her sister's relatives fled Aleppo.

With fighting reaching the country's two largest urban areas, Aleppo and Damascus, the number of people displaced internally has tripled over the summer. According to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, over 1.5 million civilians have left their homes but stayed in the country. The World Food Programme and the Food and Agricultural Organization say they are in urgent need of immediate food distribution.

Om Sutey's brother-in-law, Marouan, his wife and six children were among the 200,000 civilians who've fled the violence right after clashes broke out in Aleppo late July.

Marouan, a cloth maker, says he didn't expect full-blast violence to hit Aleppo. For long, Aleppians were shielded from the upheaval shaking the rest of the country. He explains most people in Syria's commercial hub clung to "business as usual" throughout the first year of the uprising. "People in Aleppo hoped everything would get back to normal sooner or later. We hoped the regime would find a solution."

Internal displacement

Marouan says the delusion stopped when refugees from Homs and other parts of the country started trickling to Aleppo last winter.

"We saw many families coming to Aleppo because it was safe," Marouan said. "Aleppo was full of refugees. They told us what they saw. They described the massacres... That's when we realized there was something wrong, and that it kept going worst."

As described in a report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, the first major wave of displacement from Homs was a turning point. "Before this event, displacement was often regarded as collateral damage. Following the battle of Homs, the number of IDPs (Internally Displaced People) began to rise exponentially, creating its own socio-politial dynamic that lead to the spreading of the conflict. Displacement shifted from being an effect of the expanding conflict, to increasingly being a cause."

Destroyed building in Ma'at Masrin 
Foto: Marine Olivesi, August 2012

In Ma'at Masrin just as in the rest of the country, civilians are bearing the brunt of the tit-for-tat violence.

The first wave of displacement into Aleppo brought Syria's most populous town to a boil. Protests started growing in Aleppo throughout the spring, and they were met with increasing repression. Clashes in Aleppo escalated into a full-on war in July, forcing hundreds of thousands on the road.

One of Om Sutey's new neighbors in Ma'at Masrin also hails from Aleppo. He explains that many of those who had already been displaced couldn't afford to resettle once more. "Most of the Aleppians like us left town, especially those living in embattled neighborhoods," he said. "But many refugees from outside, from Homs for instance, had no choice but stay. They just don't have enough money to leave again."

From village to village

Scores of refugees have sought shelter in schools throughout the country. According to a recent survey of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, thousands have found refuge in 330 schools nationwide. And the number of families who have been displaced multiple times is on the rise.

Subheya's family has moved no less than six times in one month. The grandmother says they fled their village 10 days before Ramadan.

"The Assad army was shelling our village. We walked under the shelling on the road to another village, not far... They started shelling that place as well. We moved to another village, and it happened again. It's like bombs were following us."

Then, the family of 40 split. Half of them would go to Damascus. The other half to Aleppo. They had relatives in both cities, and both cities were Syria's last two safe havens - until they weren't anymore.

Destroyed buildings in Syria's Idlib Province 
Foto: Marine Olivesi, August 2012

The cycle of violence, destruction and displacement, goes on.

"We had to escape Aleppo," says Soubheya. "But we couldn't go on the streets because fighting was raging. So we crossed town through the backyards. We jumped up and down walls, over iron gates and burning tires. They were bombing all around us. It was hard for everyone but we were so scared we just kept going, house by house."

The family regrouped in Ma'at Masrin, an hour's drive away from Aleppo, before shelling forced them to leave once more. They found shelter in the abandoned clinic of a village nearby.

About two-thirds of the extended family are young kids and teenagers.

"Our children are the reason why we're bouncing around the country," one grown-up says. "We want to make sure they're safe."

He says they might go next to Turkey, where they would have access to humanitarian aid. Yet he still hopes they don't have to. Once they leave Syria, they fear it could be months or even years until they can return home.

"This project was made possible by a fellowship from the French-American Foundation - United States as part of the Immigration Journalism Fellowship. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the French-American Foundation or its Directors, employees or representatives."

DW.DE