Displaced Syrians forced to build hideouts in the caves of Jabal al-Zawiya

The caves shelter Syrian families whose homes have been under attack as regime forces continue to hound Idlib.

Ahmed Khalil, 53, moved with his family to a al-Zawiya cave after his son was killed in shelling on his village five years ago [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Idlib, Syria – In Jabal al-Zawiya there is a dark, narrow rock passageway that eventually leads to an illuminated cave.

This is where Ahmed Khalil lives with his family. The 53-year-old father of four from the village of Kansafra south of Idlib brought everyone here to get away from continuous shelling by Syrian regime forces.

Khalil dug the cave himself, using primitive tools, after his son was killed in a shelling on his village five years ago.

They use battery power to light the cave, which is furnished simply, with a large rug where the family spends most of its time, one end of it covered with children’s toys. A shelf bearing the family’s necessities is in one corner.

The family is not exactly happy staying there, even temporarily, Khalil told Al Jazeera. “This cave … is like a tomb, we cannot leave it because of the continuous shelling in the area,” Khalil said.

“These caves are not suitable for humans. They’re so damp, people get sick, especially children. But they’re still safer than our houses,” Khalil said.

Ahmed Khalil, 53, is a father with four children from the village of Kansafra in the southern countryside of Idlib [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Villages and towns in al-Zawiya in the Idlib countryside, close to the front lines with Syrian regime forces, have been subjected to an intensive artillery shelling campaign, the strongest in months, leading to the displacement of some residents to the northern countryside of Idlib.

In March 2020, Turkey and Russia reached a ceasefire agreement in the Idlib de-escalation zone after the Syrian regime took control of vast areas in the countryside of Idlib, Hama and Aleppo.

However, this agreement is constantly violated by the Syrian regime forces.

“For the past 10 days, we have been living in this cave, and I only leave to get some bread and water and return quickly. I fear the shelling and the reconnaissance aircraft that never leave the area,” Khalil said.

“My children’s mental health is deteriorating, and I fear for them if our stay here is prolonged,” Khalil told Al Jazeera.

What he fears most is that the cave he is in will be hit. It lacks ventilation openings and does not have an emergency exit, meaning they are trapped if its only entrance is blocked.

“In Idlib province, there is no safe place to go because the [Bashar al-Assad] regime and Russia have not spared any city or village from their bombings and displacement of its residents,” Khalil added.

Khalil dug this cave using primitive digging tools after his son was killed in a shelling on his village five years ago [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Escaping death to death

A girl was killed and her sister injured in a rocket attack by Syrian regime forces on Monday morning that targeted a tent where the girls’ family lived on the outskirts of the city of Sarmin, east of Idlib, according to the Syrian Civil Defense.

Abir al-Khalf, a 32-year-old mother of three from the village of Qumeinas in the Idlib countryside, keeps a tent on his farmland near Sarmin, where he and his family go when there is shelling on their village.

“On Sunday, my family and I left the tent and gave it to my relatives who came fleeing from the shelling by the Assad regime forces on the nearby village of Afes in the eastern Idlib countryside,” al-Khalf said.

Al-Khalf told Al Jazeera that 12 of her relatives slept in the tent only to be woken up on Monday morning by shelling targeting the agricultural land they were staying in, resulting in the death of a 12-year-old girl, Fidaa, and the serious injury of her sister.

“They were preparing breakfast when the shells surprised them, turning their breakfast into a pool of blood and body parts,” al-Khalf said.

A tent set up on the outskirts of Sarmin, east of Idlib [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“For about 12 years now, we have been escaping from death to death, in addition to the displacement that has not ended due to the continuous shelling of cities and villages in northern Syria,” she added.

Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, said a lot of displacement from the towns in Zawiya has been ongoing for several days as a result of Syrian regime attacks. Civilians from the countryside of Jarablus and al-Bab in the Aleppo countryside are also being shelled intensively.

“Since the beginning of this year 2023 until Sunday, August 27th, our teams have documented 491 attacks by the regime forces, Russia, and their affiliated militias. These attacks have resulted in the deaths of 55 people, including nine children and five women, and the injury of 225 people, including 78 children and 32 women,” said Munir al-Mustafa, Deputy Director of Syrian Civil Defense.

Al-Mustafa told Al Jazeera that, in the first four days of September, attacks by regime forces and Russia in northwestern areas have intensified, resulting in the deaths of nine civilians, including six children, and the injury of 18 others, including 13 children and four women.

Children play in their cave home [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera