BEIRUT (AP) — Throughout Syria's civil war, Maad al-Khalaf helped other Syrians find shelter in the opposition enclave in the northwest as they fled government military advances around the country. Now he's the one in need of refuge as a swift offensive overwhelmed his home village.
He joined hundreds of thousands in Idlib province scrambling to escape the widening, multifront assault by President Bashar Assad's forces, squeezing into whatever structures they can find in a shrinking territory.
"There is no house of concrete or of mud or even a chicken coop that is not inhabited," the 41-year-old al-Khalaf said. "People are in dire need of any shelter. Even a tent sometimes is not available."
The son of a prominent landowning family in Qmenas, an ancient Aramaic village, al-Khalaf fled with his family of five to a nearby town as bombs began to fall. Within three days, that was swept up in the offensive as well, so they ran farther — to a village near the Turkish border, 18 miles from the front line.
There, they live in a tent on a piece of farmland donated by a relative. More relatives moved in as well. Winter wind sweeps through the new settlement, where 30 families huddle in 15 tents set up in the mud, sharing one toilet, one sink and a huge sense of relief that they are out of harm’s way, at least for now.
Nearly a quarter of the 3 million people in Idlib and surrounding areas have surged north as Russian-backed Syrian forces advanced in recent weeks, determined to capture the last remaining opposition-held territory. Terrified families piled on trucks and vehicles, sitting on top of mattresses and blankets, clogging sludgy rural roads in harrowing scenes of exodus that have been recurrent in Syria's war, now in its ninth year.
Around half the territory's population had already been displaced from other parts of Syria, so formal camps are full. People are setting up tents in farms or sheltering in half-constructed buildings with no windows or doors in temperatures below freezing.
Almost half of the 700,000 uprooted since Dec. 1 are children, the U.N. estimated. Schools have stopped, 26 immunization centers closed, threatening new outbreaks of diseases, and 53 health facilities no longer operate, including three directly hit in airstrikes or shelling. More than 370 civilians have been killed since December, according to the U.N.
While it may not be the biggest single wave of displacement — nearly 1 million were on the move after a government offensive a year ago — this may be the most dire.
"This is truly the worst humanitarian crisis because of lack of resources, the surge in displacement over short periods, weaker emergency responses and because shrinking areas outside of government control means a major problem in providing shelter," said Mohammed al-Shami, a coordinator for the area's Response Coordination Group, which works with U.N. agencies to assess needs.
For the millions who refuse to live under government rule, this is their last frontier, with few places to run to.
Turkey, the opposition's last friend, is already home to 3.6 million refugees and won't open the concrete blast walls it erected along most of the border.
In one swift move over just a few days, government troops captured more than 230 square miles. The forces’ immediate goal seems to be to control the strategic highway running across Idlib and linking northern Syria to Damascus.