“I dreamt that we were happy and going back to our village,” she says, sitting on the rocks that hold her family’s tent in place. She speaks matter-of-factly, like a weary adult. “In the dream it was like before, and our home wasn’t destroyed. But those are just dreams. Everything will stay like it is.”
It has now been 10 years since the start of the Syrian civil war, and Tasnim holds on fiercely to the few things she hasn’t lost. She has school in the mornings and, at the moment, surviving family and friends. “But everyone who is good to us and we love, dies,” she says.
The war has ended in most of Syria, with President Bashar al-Assad the apparent victor. But nearly a quarter of the population lives in Idlib and surrounding areas, the last remaining opposition stronghold.
Like Tasnim, families here say they have lost almost everything to the war.
When her village was attacked, Tasnim’s father’s life was saved by a member of the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group that works in Syrian opposition areas.
“They bombed our house … and a neighbor hid us in a cave nearby,” she says. “I saw my father unconscious and the White Helmets were carrying him. They thought he was dead. I ran after the car shouting, ‘Dad!’”
Ibrahim Mohammad, 26, has served with the White Helmets since 2014 and says he has pulled countless people — alive and dead — from the rubble of bombed out buildings, including babies.
At a training center in Idlib city last month, Mohammad says he dropped out of college because of the war. He lost his home, friends and members of his family. But he did not lose everything, he says.
When asked what the war has given him, he smiles warmly and replies, “A lot.”
“We are living in the north, with freedom, dignity and on our land,” he explains. “We’ve lost so many people. Everyone has lost someone from their family.”
At the beginning of last year, nearly a million people fled their homes in other parts of Idlib province in the largest exodus of the war, many here to the opposition-controlled north.
A number of rebel groups control this region, some with the direct support of Turkey. In Idlib city, one of the strongest of the groups, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is in charge, along with a civilian authority called the Syrian Salvation Government.
Roughly 1.5 million people are displaced in this region alone, along with millions of others across the country. The presence of HTS complicates humanitarian efforts and potential peace negotiations as the group is viewed as a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries.
But local authorities describe HTS as an opposition force like any other, adding they believe the humanitarian crisis would be best addressed by rebel victories that allow people to return to their homes without fear of the government.
“In 10 years, our people have suffered through massacres and bombings with suspicious international silence,” says Muhammad Salem, the Syrian Salvation Government’s public relations director. “Our revolution was not for comfort and bread, but for pride and dignity.”
Comfort and bread
For many families in the camps, however, a modicum of comfort and some bread to eat would be welcome, and potentially lifesaving as displaced families face sometimes-deadly cold and hunger.
After Tasnim and her family fled the bombardment of their village a year ago, they moved through eight camps before they found a “safe” place to stay. Most camps were overcrowded and without running water or humanitarian aid. Tasnim’s uncle used to wait for it to rain so they could collect water for cooking or drinking.
They finally settled in a camp with water tanks and some humanitarian aid, but not nearly enough.
“Sometimes they bring us hygiene kits, but we don’t want that,” Tasnim says. “We need things for children like diapers, milk and food. We want to eat. It has been two months since we received any food aid.”
One of her neighbors, 50-year-old Fatoum Alshamali, better remembers life before the war and says she wants more than just enough to eat and a heater for her tent, both of which are now lacking.
Alshamali says she wants to go home and one day be buried in her own village. Alternatively, if Assad’s forces advance, she wants to stay and fight, despite the fact that she needs two crutches to walk.
“I’ll be first to fight for Idlib,” she says. “We have no other place to go.”
Most families say they will flee if Assad’s forces move in, but even that plan is lacking, as there is increasingly nowhere to go. The Turkish border in the north is firmly shut and the region is surrounded by government forces.
Tasnim misses her three-room village home, where she and her cousins used to play in the yard. But returning, she says, doesn’t seem remotely possible.
“What did we do?” she asks. “Why did they take our village? We are children and did nothing to them.”
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views and editorial stance of the SOHR.