Najah Gafari uses rocks to protect the entrance of her cave in Ain al-Zarka on January 21, 2013
Najah Gafari -- who evacuated her home due to shelling by regime forces -- builds a wall with rocks to protect the entrance of a cave to live with her family in Ain al-Zarka, northeast of Syria, on January 21, 2013. The caves dotting the sheer cliffs in picturesque northwest Syria now serve as makeshift homes, refuges from the incessant regime bombardment of Al-Hamama. © Aamir Qureshi - AFP
Najah Gafari uses rocks to protect the entrance of her cave in Ain al-Zarka on January 21, 2013
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Marc Burleigh, AFP
Last updated: January 23, 2013

Syrians hide in caves to escape the war

The caves dotting the sheer cliffs in picturesque northwest Syria have been there for so long that locals do not know what they were originally used for.

Now they serve as makeshift homes, refuges from the incessant regime bombardment that is steadily reducing their nearby village of Al-Hamama -- a poor hamlet located in a rebel-held zone -- to rubble.

"We came here because of the shelling, because the regime is always shelling our village," Abdallah Bedaoui, 32, tells AFP.

"Some shells landed very close to my home in the village. One blew out all the windows and broke the door. That's when I decided to take my family and live in this cave."

Bedaoui stands in front of a grotto that now shelters all 15 people in his family. He has built a wall and put in a door to the entrance. The exhaust flue from a stove pokes outside, smoking in the chill winter air.

On the floor inside are carpets, on which stand Bedaoui's young children.

"The children don't like it here, they think it's bad and very small, and there's not much food," Bedaoui says.

His cave is one of scores gaping out of the rock walls overlooking a river.

Many show signs of habitation: clothes drying on shrubs, carpets or plastic sheeting strung up to shield the interiors, rudimentary steps carved out of rock or soil leading up to them.

Often, only women occupy a cave. Their husbands or sons have been jailed by the regime as suspected rebels or sympathisers.

"My three sons have been in jail for nine months and I have no news of them at all. I went to ask about them and the regime arrested me and kept me in jail for six weeks," Najah Gafari, 55, says.

She is rolling heavy rocks to make a wall to a cave she is preparing to live in with a dozen other girls and women from her family.

"It's to make sure the children don't fall over the edge," she says.

The boulders also provide some protection from curious prying eyes.

"We are scared the girls will go to jail too" just because they come from the same family as the detained men, Gafari says.

Hearing the distant boom of artillery strikes targeting rebel areas, she adds: "Here is better than in the village because you can't see the rockets. You feel safer."

The villagers are too poor to consider fleeing to Turkey, where life is unaffordable and where they cannot take the chickens and livestock that they depend on for food.

And they also want to stay together, with the rest of their community.

But their existence as cave people, they realise, is likely to last a long time.

"I don't know how long we will be here. Maybe two months, maybe five, maybe six. Until the shelling stops," Bedaoui says.

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