Idlib, Syria. — It’s freezing cold and the kids don’t have proper shoes, but the elderly Samar couldn’t risk it. Overnight, the bombings got too close.
They fled their village in a panic, the older children carrying the little ones, walking for seven hours just to get away. The youngest children are shaking, their cheeks are bright pink from the cold.
Finally, a van stops — it’s a godsend. The family piles in with their hastily filled bags containing just a change of clothes, which they managed to grab in the darkness as they ran.
In the last two months, more than 832,000 people have fled the last opposition-held territory in Syria in the wake of a relentless air campaign and a swift ground offensive by the Syrian regime and its Russian backers. Tens of thousands of people are still on the move. Nearly 700,000 of the newly displaced are women and children, according to the latest UN figures.
There is plenty of international condemnation, but little action to relieve the situation in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib and the surrounding areas.
The van takes Samar and the six kids in her care to her sister-in-law’s house in a village close to the town of Atarib. It’s not far enough, but for now it will have to do.
“I don’t feel better here,” Samar told CNN. “We need to leave but we need to try to figure out transport or something because if we try to walk it will be impossible.”
Just a few doors down, Umm Abdo’s kids wait outside, bundled up in their winter coats as she finishes loading a truck with mattresses and blankets. The airstrikes are getting too close. It’s time to leave.
“We are only taking a little, just some clothes, only what we need,” Umm Abdo said.
She walks into the bedroom one last time and pulls out the kids’ toys from the closet.
Eight-year-old Dima grabs her favorite — a pink teddy bear called Hamze. The youngest, two-year-old Betoule, grabs a yellow chick. Ten-year-old Abdelbased keeps his hands in his pockets — he is too old to play with stuffed animals anyway.
They fled their home two years ago, but had created new memories and a sense of stability in this house. The kids were in school and they had friends.
Umm Abdo tells the girls to put the toys back. They don’t protest or hesitate, seemingly hardened well beyond their years, and head out to the truck.
After a final look around the house, Umm Abdo walks out, locking the front door behind her. It’s an incredible act of optimism as the Syrian regime onslaught continues and the future looks bleak.
There are no good options for the population as the opposition enclave disintegrates.
In the short term, many say they would prefer a Turkish protectorate that would let people go back home. The nightmare scenario is for the Syrian government to take back control and reimpose its brutal regime of massacres and mass detentions.
For its part, Turkey has upped its military presence, sending in hundreds of armored vehicles and tanks in an effort to stop the government advance.
(PHOTO: Gul Tuysuz/CNN)