NORTHERN SYRIA — Five years into Syria’s civil war, families have made their homes in caves and ancient tombs in a desperate attempt to shield themselves from barrel bombs and artillery bombardments.
Abdel Salam Fadel, from Kansafra, for more than a year has been living in one of the tombs and caves dotting the hillsides around the northwestern province of Idlib. “For 45 years, I never dared go into this cavern but when my house was destroyed in heavy bombardment, I had no other choice but to move in.”
Fadel has organized the 4,300-square-foot cave into living quarters for his large family and a place to keep his goats. “Many displaced families who lost their homes in the village shifted to tens of Roman caves littering the area. Some caves are quite spacious and shared by more than one family,” he said.
Idlib province is a stronghold of the newly rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which said it cut ties with al-Qaida in late July and changed its name from al-Nusra Front. It has been regularly targeted by Syrian and Russian air attacks.
Northern rural parts of Aleppo province have provided natural shelters for the war-battered population. Many like Abdo Chahine from the village of Ratyan say they prefer living in a cave over a crammed Syrian refugee camp, which is also subject to attack.
“The village was totally deserted after being destroyed in the beginning of the year in an attack by government forces. My neighbors and I settled in tents in a refugee camp at first but the place was bombarded, prompting us to seek shelter in caves on the outskirts of the [adjacent] town of Anadan, which is known as the area of caverns,” said Chahine.
The father of five young children said he worked for more than 10 years in neighboring Lebanon to save enough money to build his house. “It was all gone in five minutes. I saw my house being turned into a mound of stones by a barrel bomb. I never imagined that I will go back to living in caves like thousands of years ago,” he said.
“These caves were dens for wolves and hyenas and no one dared go near them. They have become dwellings for people instead but at least here I can sleep with my family safely without fear of being buried under rubble,” Chahine said.
Many of the caves are natural and others are ancient tombs or mine workings. “The areas of rural Aleppo and Idlib are known for comprising hundreds of caves, some of which were excavated by the Romans and later enlarged by the Ottomans,” noted Abdel Kader Mohamad, a former professor of geography at Aleppo University.
“The caves were used in the past as rest stations for troops while travelling on military campaigns and, at a later stage, they served as hideouts for revolutionaries resisting French occupation. Today, they are dwellings for families fleeing the regime attacks,” Mohamad said.
One of the caves in Kansafra was turned into a makeshift school after many school buildings in the area were severely damaged in air strikes.
“Some 60 students are attending underground classes, sitting right on the floor after they lost their school,” media activist Abdel Aziz Khalil said in an online interview.
“Despite the harsh conditions and dangers of living in caverns, families prefer them to the overcrowded tented camps where there is no privacy, a matter that is quite disturbing for conservative Syrian families,” Khalil said. Although some caves are fairly spacious, they are dark and airless and become particularly stuffy when they are shared by more than one family.
Rebel fighters are also using the caves. Further south in Al-Lajat in eastern rural Deraa, hillside caves serve as hideouts and training space for the rebel al-Omari Brigades, which was set up by a dissident Syrian Army officer from the area.
“The caves constituted a safe place to gather our fighters. Some are quite large allowing us to give lessons and training inside,” said a group commander going by the nom de guerre Abou Hazza.
“The caves in Al-Lajat region are also home for more than 150 families who took shelter there despite the hazards of having their children being bitten by snakes and stung by scorpions,” he said.
People living in the caves suffer from a lack of food and water. Their main form of sustenance is the sparse greenery and vegetation found between rocks on the mountains. They have no access to healt care or medicine, which makes them especially vulnerable in an area also home to poisonous snakes.
There is a sense of history repeating itself in the caves of Idlib, Aleppo and Deraa where people lived thousands of years ago but modern day cave-dwellers yearn to return to their homes.
By Ahmad Ramadan