IDLIB PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) - After losing her husband, a son and her home to Syria’s eight-year war, Yusra al-Shomali and her daughters found refuge in rebel-held territory near the Turkish border. But as a Syrian army offensive intensifies, their safety may be put at risk.
Shomali’s experience of fear, siege, hunger, loss, separation and displacement is common among people who lived in opposition-held areas of Syria.
Like hundreds of thousands of others, she went to the rebel-held northwest under terms of surrender when the army captured the enclaves in which they lived. Now the northwest is the last major insurgent stronghold, and it, too, is under attack.
At the end of April, President Bashar al-Assad launched a major offensive backed by Russian air power in the biggest escalation of the war between his government and insurgents in almost a year, after accusing rebels of breaking a truce.
Northwest Syria - including Idlib province and parts of neighbouring provinces - has an estimated 3 million inhabitants, about half of whom had already fled fighting elsewhere according to the United Nations.
Over the past five weeks, hundreds of people have been killed by shellfire and air strikes, more than 300,000 people have fled the frontlines and even hospitals have been bombed.
Many of those leaving their homes or temporary shelters have ended up sleeping rough in makeshift bivouacs along the border with Turkey, hoping for protection from bombardment.
Shomali, 52, is more fortunate than them. After suffering hardship and homelessness when she and her daughters left the al-Waer district of Homs, she found a place in a village by the border built for people who had lost family members during the war.
Shomali “couldn’t believe it” when she was offered a furnished house in the village with water, electricity, food aid and schooling, she said, but she misses her old home.
“Things are good here, but it’s not like your own neighbourhood,” she said.
About 650 people live in the village’s 100 apartments, built with Turkish and Qatari aid money and located a few hundred metres from the border, its director Samer al-Qirbi said. Many of them are orphans.
There are many more such projects starting up for people seeking refuge at the frontier - an area that has been free of bombing raids so far - as the fighting moves further north, he said. “Today, all Syrians have come to the border”.
Shomali’s 11-year-old daughter Hayat remembers the day of shelling that destroyed their old home in al-Waer district, the last rebel enclave in the city of Homs to surrender to the government.
“I went into the kitchen and felt a huge pressure forcing me back out and then I fainted,” she said. She woke up covered in rubble and sobbing, terrified that her sister had been killed.
Though 18 neighbours died there that day, both girls were pulled out alive, but they had to leave the much-loved family home in a 10-storey housing block.
Shomali remembers its size, with four bedrooms, a salon and two bathrooms. She boasts of the glass ornaments it contained and the views out over fields and forests. Hayat misses her toys, her clothes and gifts from friends she might never see again.
By the time they left Homs in 2016, Shomali’s husband was dead, shot by a sniper in 2012 at the age of 50. Her younger son, Alaeddine, was also gone, killed in a battle aged 28, nine months after leaving the family to join a rebel group.
Her other daughter, Nour, 30, is mentally disabled, she said. When the rebels in Waer surrendered and they left for Idlib in a convoy of buses, they had only the clothes they wore.
They arrived in the city and sat alone in the street until late at night when some people took them to temporary accommodation in a mud village in the countryside nearby.
There were scorpions and other insects and when it rained heavily the water dripped into the rooms. They tried to find places in camps for displaced people, but were turned away.
Finally two years ago they were offered an apartment in the village because they had lost close family members and because of Nour’s disability.
Early this year they were joined by her surviving son, Abdo, who had left Homs early in the war to become a refugee in Lebanon. They paid smugglers to bring him to Idlib and his arrival was “miraculous” said Shomali.
Hayat is top of her class in the village school and wants to become a doctor. She misses her old life in Homs, her schoolfriends and particularly her dead brother Alaeddine.
Shomali also longs for her neighbours and her wider family, now all scattered across the world. But for her, too, the greatest loss was her son.
“Most of all what I miss is my son coming into the house,” she said. “Everything else is unimportant.”
Reporting By Khalil Ashawi; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky