The contrast between the verdant peace of the Turkish countryside and the brutal lunar landscape of Syria’s civil war is always jarring, but the bomb brought the two worlds so close together that crossing between them is like stepping through a shattered looking glass. Cars are no longer permitted to drive across the 500 metres of no man’s land between the two countries so we wait for an ancient and crowded bus to take us to the Syrian side of the border, winding through the shoals of refugee tents pressing up as close as they can to Turkey, and past the shelled and deserted duty free store. One the other side Free Syrian Army fighters wait next to a wrecked regime tank to check our credentials.
But after the tense and eerie border crossing the Syrian landscape softens once more, revealing glimpses of a calmer pre-war life. Between the checkpoints and battle scarred towns the green hills and fruit trees of Idlib province shimmer in the spring sunshine, masking the reality that this is one of the most important and fiercely contested provinces in Syria’s two year old war. The Idlib countryside was one of the first areas to fall to the rebels in the uprising, and only the cities of Jisr al Shugur and Idlib itself remain in the hands of the regime. Should these towns fall the FSA and their allies will be in full control of a region that links the key cities of Aleppo to the east and Latakia to the west.
The rebels are slowly tightening their grip around the regime in Idlib city. Taftanaz Airport, the regime’s main military air base in the north of Syria, lies empty, charred, and guarded by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra: they captured it from the government in January in a major coup for the opposition. But from the rooftop of a nearby house we can see the regime flag still fluttering defiantly over Idlib City. The fight for Idlib will take some months yet, and meanwhile the people who live here will continue to bear the brunt of the clashes, the shelling, and the airstrikes.
Driving up a mountain track we pass through the ancient landmarks that made Idlib famous: the ruins of Roman and Byzantine temples and castles, and colonnades poking up through the hillside like broken teeth. These monuments once sustained a thriving tourist industry in the province, and the people here are relying on them for survival in wartime too. In the shade of a hillside fifty three year old Faisal Hajj Musa sits with his family, the women making traditional flat Syrian bread as the children play around them. He describes how they were forced from their home by the war, and how the landscape of Idlib has sheltered them since.
“The regime retreated from our village a year ago, and then they started shelling us,” says Faisal. “Our house was hit and although it wasn’t destroyed completely we can’t live in it anymore.”
Behind him a pile of stones and a small entrance hole in the hillside mark the entrance to the Roman tomb that he now lives in with fourteen members of his family. Aesthetically it is beautiful. With its two chambers and embellished interior arches, it is clear that this must have been the burial place of a wealthy Roman family. But it is dark, and airless, and no place for a family of fifteen to live in the twenty first century. “We all sleep in here, and we have to wash in here too,” says Faisal. He points to the rear chamber, which is laid out with low mattresses. Its front chamber is dominated by a wood-burning stove, and around it there is barely standing room for fifteen people.
Like countless generations before him Faisal was a shepherd. His retreat to the tomb has cut him off from his land and his livelihood, but this is still his family’s best option. His three year old grandson Aisa appears, silhouetted against the light of the entrance, and as he lifts him down he describes how the children are coping with life in a war zone. “When the jets come we have to hold the children because they scream,” he says. “They know exactly what’s happening. When it’s quiet they go outside the cave and sing songs to support the FSA.” Nonetheless, the family’s support for the revolution can’t bring them the essentials. The clear mountain spring water of Idlib is clean enough to drink, but Faisal says they are struggling to find enough food. “I’ve lost my sheep and we’ve not received any aid at all,” he says.
The tomb is small, cramped and dark, but it is also rocket and shell proof – and the Idlib hills are littered with thousands of others like it. So hundreds of families like Faisal’s have moved their homes underground to the natural caves and Roman bunkers of the province. “Nearly everyone from our village is living in the caves now,” says Faisal. “Without them, what would we do?”
Alongside families like Faisal’s rebel fighters are also turning Idlib’s caves to their favour. Further up the hillside the Al Fursan al Shawal Brigade are in the middle of a training drill. Brigade leader Abu Yaman points to a piece of wood that’s barely distinguishable against the rocky hills of the Idlib countryside, and a hush settles over the group as the first fighter positions himself against the sandbags. There’s a pause before the clear morning air is broken by the bang of the Kalashnikov. Twenty seconds of silence, and then he fires another shot. Behind him another fighter notes down his score before the second shooter moves into position.
“Some of these men are defectors from the regime army but others worked in civilian jobs before the revolution,” Abu Yaman says. “Men are still coming to join us all the time, but I have to be sure that they are good shooters before they can go to the front line.”
He comes up to the sandbags to show a newer recruit how to position properly and take aim at the target. “If they fail this test then they have to come back to training,” he explains.
As darkness settles we retreat to the brigade’s own set of caves for the night. “We found this one by accident when we were making a hole for the toilet,” Abu Yaman says as he leads us down the uneven stone steps. “We found the steps and when we followed them we found this.”
The steps open out onto a huge open space, the walls hung with fabric and the floor carpeted. It’s equipped with electricity, internet and a sound system. “There’s three metres of rock above us,” says Abu Yaman. “A scud missile could land directly on top and it wouldn’t break through.” As the crump of shellfire reverberates through the rock, the fighters talk on Skype and joke together with a comfortable ease that comes from knowing that not even the regime’s heaviest weaponry could penetrate this bunker.
There is a sense of history repeating itself in the ancient hills of Idlib. “People lived here thousands of years ago, and now we’re living here again,” he says. But he knows that normality can only return to the province when Faisal and his family, and others like them, can come back up into the sunlight and return to their homes. “We have the regime under siege, and they can’t move any more. God knows when we will beat them finally, but it will be soon.”