Syrian government offensive forces thousands to find shelter in caves, cars

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2013 

— Under bombardment from combat aircraft, tanks and rocket launchers, at least 100,000 people have fled the towns and villages north of Hama in central Syria in the past 10 days, rebels say. But shelter has run out in this part of northern Syria, and many have been forced to live in the open or even in nearby caves.

The latest wave of displacement in Syria’s tide of misery was set in motion when the government, seeking to reverse rebel gains, began a heavy-weapons assault on Kernaz, a town of 20,000 that controls access to the al Ghab Valley, where rebels and the Syrian army now live in a tense coexistence.

Residents fled in farm vehicles, rickety cars and on foot to this modest village of 100 houses. One family here took in 49 guests. “If we have two rooms, we give one to the displaced people,” said Khalid al Ali, 28, the imam of the small Sunni Muslim mosque. “We share everything.”

The displaced kept on coming, and soon the only shelter left was two small limestone caves across the road from the village.

This much can be said of life inside a cave: It’s out of the rain. But there’s no electricity, heat or running water, and inside it’s cold, dark and damp.

“It’s unbearable here. Last night I was sick coughing, and I had to wrap myself in blankets,” said Um Ali, 32, who fled Kafr Naboudeh, a town of 25,000 near Kernaz, when it came under fire from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. “He made us homeless,” said Musa, Um Ali’s husband. Both declined to be further identified for security reasons.

A large white truck pulled up in front of the olive grove that conceals the cave, and men from the Farouq Brigade, a rebel force that has fought in the region for much of the last 22 months, dispensed pup tents donated by Syrian businessmen in Jordan. “We are giving them to those most in need – the people in the caves and on the streets,” said Azar Obeisi, 53, who previously was a real estate agent in Hama, but now dresses in military fatigues.

International aid organizations have yet to reach this part of Syria, and the thousands now living in misery clearly depend on local residents and the rebels for food and shelter. The United Nations and most private aid organizations won’t enter a country at war without the permission of the government, which Assad’s regime hasn’t granted.

Syrian doctors attending to the wounded in makeshift mobile clinics say they lack almost all the necessary medicines and equipment, and what they have they’ve bought with their own funds. The Farouq Brigade, which controls much of north-central Syria, distributes bags of food to those living in the open or in the caves, but it isn’t clear where it comes from.

For some in Syria, a country that has had human settlements for thousands of years, it is a return to the Stone Age.

Al Sahriah’s two caves served as burial chambers during the Roman Empire. Stripped by looters in the centuries since, they became dens for animals.

“This cave was full of stones. It took us two days to empty it,” said Um Omar, 36, who is one of 16 inhabitants from three related families. There was also a layer of sheep droppings, some of which they removed. The rest they covered with soil. A tarpaulin became a floor, and the cave was their new home.

Because they had left Kafr Naboudeh in a panic, the only food they brought was powdered thyme, olives and olive oil, known here as everyman’s dinner. Now, thanks to a Farouq Brigade packet, they have wheat, rice and other basics. Um Omar’s daughter, who calls herself Um Yusuf, draws water from a nearby well and buys milk from a farmer for her 14-month-old son. Yusuf’s growth is stunted and he needs to see a doctor in Damascus, but there is no way to get there.

The south-facing cave is warmer and lighter than the first hole in the ground, but its location also brings risks. For two days this past week, the family did not leave the cave because the bombing and shelling of Kernaz was so intense.

“We are all coughing. All of us are sick,” said Um Omar.

Still, she counts her blessings. On Wednesday, she said, “10 people came here, looking for a cave to live in. They were unlucky.”

Another passerby drove the message home. “A woman came to us and said: ‘You are lucky. You have only three families. There are caves with 10 families in them.’”

Whatever the distress of the cave dwellers, Mohammad Mahmoud Ezedin, a laborer aged 41, has it worse. He brought his and his brother’s families to Al Sahriah from Kafr Naboudeh in their Isuzu pickup truck, and that is where they live. They left behind a house with three rooms, a kitchen and bath, and it since has been destroyed “by a random shell,” he said. The 10 people who inhabit the Isuzu remove their shoes before getting in, as is the custom before entering any residence in Syria.

“Our life is miserable,” said Ezedin.

Rebel officials estimate that up to 150,000 were made homeless in the current government offensive. But Abdur Rahman al Hamud, the civilian “revolutionary commander” of the Kernaz Martyrs Battalion, said the number could be higher, because “99 per cent of the people in 10 towns and villages have left their homes.”

In Kernaz, “you can now find only cattle and revolutionaries,” he said in an interview at his headquarters.

He said the Syrian army has deployed 1,500 troops, about 100 tanks and an unspecified number of rocket launchers in its offensive and is lobbing as many as 800 shells a day into Kernaz, much of which lies in ruins. Aircraft bombed the town daily for eight days, and earlier this week, after rebels shot down a MiG-23 combat aircraft, the regime fired ground-to-ground missiles at Kernaz from Adalia, a town dominated by Alawites, the Shiite Muslim sect to which Assad and much of Syria’s elite belong.

Hamud says the rebels consist about about 1,000 troops armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and a few anti-aircraft weapons and machine guns. So far, he said, the rebels have inflicted 200 casualties on the army, including 70 killed. He said rebel casualties were six dead and 12 wounded. It was impossible to verify the figures.

Hamud said that without heavier weapons, the rebels could lose Kernaz, which he described as a strategic point.

“Kernaz is the gate to the northern countryside of Hama. If the regime can get Kernaz, they will be able to take Kafr Naboudeh. Then they cut the way between Idlib and Hama,” dividing the rebel-controlled area in northern Syria.

McClatchy special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee contributed to this report.

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