Mohamad Othman remembers going on school trips to ancient archaeological sites in Syria, never imagining one of them would become his home.
The 30-year-old and his family have been living in a tent amidst ancient ruins at Sarjableh near the Turkish border since fleeing for their lives some two-and-a-half years ago during a government offensive in northwestern Syria.
Rocks gathered from the site anchor down their tent, one of several dozen sheltering families who have fled their homes during the 10-year-old Syrian war.
Their clothes hang to dry on two lines strung between the tent and an ancient stone portico. Their children clamber over the rocks and balance on walls in this unusual, if not dangerous, playground.
“In the summer, we face scorpions, snakes and dust, and all the pressures of life, and in winter, the cold. The situation is desperate. There are no health services,” Othman said.
A father of four, he struggles to make an income, depending on seasonal work such as olive picking and any other jobs he can get. When there is no work, he is forced to go into debt to provide the basics. His children do not go to school.
“When the last bombardment and attack began, we left to come to here,” Othman said. “We did not find a place to take shelter, so we lived here, among the ruins.”
Sarjableh, an early Christian settlement with ruins dating to the 5th century, has been popular with the displaced because they do not have to pay to stay there, unlike other areas where landowners charge rent.
“Everyone here used to have land that we would farm and we had livelihoods in our villages and did not need anyone. But our fate was to be displaced,” Othman said.
“We did not leave our land by our own free will to come to an area that has been uninhabited for thousands of years.”
Not far from Sarjableh, in another corner of the northwestern province of Idlib, the ancient site of Babisqa is also providing shelter for those bombed out of their homes.
In an earlier phase of the war, rebels used the site as a base, operating from ancient caves hewn from the rock where wiring installed by the opposition fighters can still be seen.
Livestock farmers, took their sheep and goats with them when they fled into rebel-held areas from the territory now under Syrian government control. Today, sheep and goats feed amid the ancient stones, with poultry pecking on the ground.