KAFAR HAMRA, SYRIA: Civil war has chased Fatima Ghorab and her brood of some two dozen women and children across Syria in search of havens that keep disappearing in the booms of artillery shells. They now stay in an unfinished apartment in this Aleppo suburb, crowded into two rooms with a few plastic chairs and some thin mattresses. If their neighbors didn’t bring them bread, they’d have none.
As her daughters and daughters-in-law and their kids tuck into a simple lunch of tomatoes and cucumbers, canned meat and apricot jam, the 56-year-old housewife from Damascus struggles to comprehend what has become of her life.
“Before all this, we were living well,” said Ghorab, whose family ran a supermarket in the capital until it and their home were torched during a government attack on rebels.
“Our house was full and our shop was full. Now we’re 100 degrees below zero.”
Across Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have been thrown into a life on the move by the widening fight between President Bashar Assad’s forces and rebels seeking to end his rule.
Some 1.2 million people are displaced inside Syria, according to the United Nations, on top of a quarter-million who have fled to neighboring countries.
Many have picked up and fled multiple times, pushed from town to town by fighting. When they find a place that appears safe, they pile into half-built apartment buildings or sleep on tile floors in schools or on the dirt in olive groves. In tow, they bring shell-shocked children who wet their beds, get nosebleeds and vomit when they hear explosions or fighter jets.
For many, no place feels safe as the regime ramps up its use of attack helicopters and fighter jets, carrying out near daily airstrikes on towns and villages. While some towns are largely destroyed and empty, others are packed. One day, villagers watch refugees from elsewhere flood in. The next day, they themselves load their belongings into rented trucks and clear out.
Ghorab’s turmoil began several months ago, when three of her sons were arrested for anti-regime protests. They were freed, but then her husband was arrested.
When he was released, his feet were so swollen from beatings he couldn’t walk, Ghorab said. Then last month, security forces torched the family’s home and supermarket during an assault to push rebels from their battle zone neighborhood of Tadamon.
By that time, Ghorab had already fled with her daughters and daughters-in-law, fearing they could be arrested too.
They went first to Aleppo, 200 miles to the north. The city, Syria’s largest, had been quiet for most of the 17-month-old uprising. But then last month, rebel fighters pushed into Aleppo and the government tried to bomb them out, turning the city into a war zone.
So Ghorab and her family fled once more, to nearby Kafar Hamra. They have little money, and all their men remain in the cities to protect their remaining properties from thieves.
“I have to take care of all these women and children, and there are no men here and no money,” she said.