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One Million Displaced People In Idlib, Syria Ponder Their Futures Amid Wartime


Now we have a rare glimpse inside the part of Syria that's been under Syrian and Russian bombardment for months. It's been the biggest humanitarian crisis of the long civil war displacing a million people since early December. But there's a window now - a shaky cease-fire worked out between the warring sides, including Turkey, which has de facto control over some of the region. For people there who have been displaced by the fighting, it's time for the agonizing calculation of whether they should go home.

NPR's Jane Arraf was there today. She joins us now to talk about what it's like. And Jane, just help us understand first how you got there because Turkey last year invaded northwest Syria, now controls the entire border area and a lot of towns. And they've only been allowing limited access to journalists, right?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Absolutely. So they've been allowing in a few journalists at a time for a limited amount of time. And today, I crossed over with NPR producer Greg Dixon and the rest of our team from Turkey into Syria. We were required to go around with a Syrian minder from a Turkish-backed group that had once been aligned with al-Qaida, and that group is the dominant force right now in Idlib province. He didn't try to control where we went, though, or listen in to our interviews.

CORNISH: When people describe this as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world right now, what do they mean? How bad is it?

ARRAF: It's bad. Now, it's improved with the cease-fire that was reached, but it's still really bad. A few weeks ago in the colder weather, there were children freezing to death, and there were some people completely without shelter or living in cars. Now as you drive from the border, pretty much everyone is in tents, but they're, like, makeshift tents, you know, stitched together from carpets or plastic. And they're in the olive groves.

In Idlib city, there were a bunch of kids - young boys - who were playing marbles. And I asked them why they weren't in school, and they said, well, because our school was destroyed. And then we went to the city of Ariha about 30 miles from the Turkish border, where we saw a hospital that had been reduced to rubble in a Syrian airstrike.

Some people, though, in that town stayed despite the danger. We found Abdullah Abu Hatem fixing motorcycles at his shop. And he said he didn't have enough money to take his family out to safety.

ABDULLAH ABU HATEM: (Through interpreter) To go and sleep in a tent under the rain, and there weren't even tents. Where would you go - under a tree? To sleep in our own beds under the airstrikes is better than staying in the street.

CORNISH: Given this cease-fire, are people considering coming back?

ARRAF: Well, it's a big problem because with all of this destruction and the war having gone on for so long, a lot of them don't have homes to go back to. In the street, we met one man who was loading up a truck full of restaurant equipment. His father started this restaurant, like, 30 years ago. And it had been hit several times, but these last airstrikes destroyed it. He said he was borrowing money to go to a new town to try to start a new restaurant.

And most of the shops were closed in the city - Ariha. But at this motorcycle repair shop, we met a stoneworker, Omar Abbous, who said his family had fled to a camp. But with the cease-fire, he was going to try to bring them back.

OMAR ABBOUS: (Through interpreter) God willing, the situation is good, and I will bring them back because at the beginning, there were a lot of airstrikes, and a lot of people were killed. I will bring them back because the situation in the tents is very, very bad.

ARRAF: So that's the dilemma, really. Turkey wants to maintain control of that area. And the Syrians we talked to were in favor of that, but it's mostly because they're terrified of the Syrian regime taking over that territory. And no one discounts that possibility.

CORNISH: And to that point, these cease-fires have collapsed in the past. I mean, are people thinking long-term about what could happen if the Assad regime took over again?

ARRAF: You know, it's so hard for them to think long-term because when this started, people were thinking they would go back to their homes in months, and it's been nine years later. So that's why we're seeing a lot of them trying to get to other countries. Now, Turkey hosts almost 4 million Syrian refugees already, and it says it can't take any more. So their best choice - what they really want to happen is for them to be able to go back to their own homes in Syria. But again, a lot of those homes are destroyed. And there's so much uncertainty, they don't know if they can.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Turkey near the Syrian border. Thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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