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Syria 1st-Hand: An Emotional Road Trip Through Idlib Province (Hanano)

Syrian family leave Taftanaz after shelling by regime forces (Photo: Philippe Desmazes/AFP)

Amal Hanano, recently returned from a trip through northern Syria, writes for The National:

At the end of the muddy path that runs from the barbed wire fence on the Turkish border through the Olive Tree refugee camp is a dirt road that turns left and leads into Syria. Taking that road meant that you were "going in", entering a country that most of the world believes to be in the midst of an almost two-year-old civil war.

For me, as I paused at the beginning of the road and gazed at the village of Atmeh to our left and the thousands of olive trees to our right, the road meant only one thing: I was going home.

They were waiting as promised at the bottom of the hill where the camp ends, for myself and my companion (a journalist and fellow Syrian). The two young men from Idlib were responsible for our safety until we crossed back into Turkey the following day. The driver, Omar Abu Al-Huda, wore a khaki baseball cap and tight black jeans while his tall cousin Mohammed, in military fatigues, had a large black bandana wrapped around his head. Thick beards completed their look. After polite hellos (and internal prayers), I went against ingrained, decades-old parental advice and climbed into the back seat of a car with strangers. Armed strangers.

As they drove us through the back roads of Idlib province's countryside, I felt a sense of relief as I left the misery of the refugee camp behind and was taken by the picturesque landscape of shades of greens and blues sparkling in the sunlight. The rows of olive trees extended as far as I could see across undulating hills in the distance. Even though it was the end of December, it looked like spring.

After the initial small talk, Omar announced that we were riding in a martyr's car, formerly owned by his slain brother, Muayad Al-Ghafir, pointing to a bullet hole in the back of his seat. We stared in silence at the jagged hole in the beige vinyl as the reality of where we were began to sink in. Muayad, who was killed on June 6, 2012, was a well-known Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter in Idlib. His proud brother Omar often referred to Muayad when introducing himself to people in the street.

We spent the day driving south through Idlib's villages and towns, passing through Atmeh, Ad Dana, and Maaret Misreen. We wanted to go to Taftanaz, the town famous for its resistance against the regime, where men had faced tanks with their bare chests in peaceful protests earlier in the year. Those protests were quelled with massive air raids and shelling that had left the town in ruins. A fierce, drawn-out battle for Taftanaz's military airport was still being fought by the FSA [Free Syrian Army] and the Syrian army. That battle ended with the victorious FSA taking control of the strategically important military site. Before heading there we heard short, muted thuds in the distance. Omar said it was the sound of anti-aircraft missiles. We stopped on the side of a road overlooking Taftanaz and watched a thin line of white smoke that mushroomed and lingered over the village. No one said anything as our car changed direction. There would be no visiting Taftanaz that day.

In the liberated town of Maaret Misreen, we drove through the main street where revolution graffiti covered the walls. I got out of the car to take pictures of the slogans and painted flags. A man stopped us and asked angrily: "What are you taking pictures of? These flags? Come take pictures of my bombed home instead." He led us to a site a few blocks away where we saw a large crater in the street and three damaged residential buildings. I stood in front of the most severely destroyed one and began clicking, this time documenting myself instead of spreading other people's photographs across social media. I imagined it would feel different to face the destruction in person, to touch the wrecked concrete floor and the walls with iron rods breaking through them. But it didn't. It felt exactly the same as seeing hundreds of these images from across the ocean: like a deadening sense of dread deep inside. I should have known that we had moved beyond being moved by broken buildings.

As I walked away, I saw a tall, elderly man with a red-and-white scarf on his head speaking with men from the neighbourhood. He gestured with his hands and repeated over and over: "This is my home, did you see it? This is my home." They tried calming him, telling him to be grateful that none of his loved ones had been killed in the strike. He responded, crying: "This is my home." Our eyes met and I was ashamed that I had embarrassed him by meeting his tearful gaze. I looked down and walked away.

Sitting alone in the car for the first time that day, my own tears escalated into uncontrollable sobs. I thought I would have felt these emotions when I crossed the border, when I saw the graffiti, when I saw the destruction, but the old man was the missing connection. These primal expressions of despair are absent from the images and even the videos. You can't imagine them from a distance. You have to be close enough to see the tears.

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