Mona lives in fear under a sky filled with rockets and bombs—and surrounded by war on all sides. "Whether you get hit or not is a matter of luck," the 24-year-old Syrian writes to DW via WhatsApp. The date is Monday, February 10, 2020. Mona and her husband are holding out in their home in the center of Idlib, from where she describes the deteriorating situation around her.
The ongoing battle for control of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, has grown more and more intense over the past year. Bombs dropped by the Syrian army and its Russian allies rain down on the city on a daily basis. Turkish troops allied with the rebels are fast approaching the city from the south.
Some three million people live in Idlib province and it's estimated that as many as 700,000 have fled the region since late December. Most of those fleeing are heading toward Turkey—but neighboring Turkey has sealed its border.
Mona, however, never attempted to leave—she and her husband are determined to stay in Idlib, come what may. She says she has been forced to move four times over the past 10 months, at times because of the bombs, at others simply because she couldn't afford to pay her rent. She says she doesn't have the energy to flee, adding, "Besides, there is no place that is really safe."
WhatsApp messages from a war zone
It's clear from the photos and videos she sends to DW that Mona is thin and frail. She says she's lost more than 15 kilos (33 lbs) as a result of the stress of living in a war zone. She also sent along a picture from earlier days, before the permanent bombardments began. In it, one sees an animated teen with a colorful hijab and handbag looking into the camera.
Mona's family is from Tabqa, near the city of Raqqa. When, in August 2014, the terror organization "Islamic State" (IS) took control of the city after weeks of fighting the Syrian army, Mona, her parents and her five siblings fled. Not long after that, the house they moved into in Idlib was destroyed in an airstrike.
Each day, Mona writes hundreds of WhatsApp messages describing her life. She attaches photos, audio and video files, and shares her live location, which shows exactly where she is at any given time. Nevertheless, none of her dispatches can adequately convey her everyday experience, and how it feels to be in her situation.
Attempts at normalcy
Mona enjoys Western pop music; she's a fan of Adele and Billie Eilish. She also likes movies: "American, German, Korean, Spanish, it doesn't matter, I find them all interesting," she writes. She studied Arabic literature at university and dreams of becoming a journalist. She loves writing: She runs a blog focused on women's rights, and works as a reporter for the Syrian radio station Watan FM, which now broadcasts from Turkey. "Now I report almost exclusively on death and mourning—things I never wanted to write about."
Mona also writes for the Sweden-based non-governmental organization Start Point, which advocates for victims of human rights abuses in Syria. She supports her family, whom she says gives her strength, with the money she earns. She is the only one in her family with a job. However, she says there is another reason her work is important: It gives her life a sense of structure and purpose, she says. "I couldn't go on living without my job."
Each day, Mona travels to her office in Kafr where she works with three colleagues. Kafr is about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Idlib, and she travels by bus. The journey is perilous. "Today, airstrikes were carried out at several places along the road," she writes on Monday evening.
"It can happen without notice, anywhere, anytime," she says, noting that she is scared every time she leaves the house. Hundreds of airstrikes have been conducted over the last few weeks alone, with many of the bombardments hitting targets very close to her home. "But what choice do I have? I just have to live with it." Life, she says, must go on, even after nine years of war. "Many shops have closed up entirely. Though many people have fled Idlib, there are still basic provisions like water, food and electricity." Her family has enough food and water to survive.
Morning bombing raids
Tuesday, February 11, 2020, 11:28 am: "That was ten minutes ago, about a kilometer from here. I feel totally alone. They just bombed the market square. It was full of people. It's a disaster," wrote Mona in a message accompanying a video clip. She tells DW the video was shot by a friend who forwarded it to her. There is no way of independently verifying that claim.
In the video, one can see a thick plume of smoke as it rises above the rooftops of Idlib. A short time later, the Arab news outlet Al-Arabiya reported on its English-language website, along with other outlets, that at least 12 civilians had been killed in an airstrike. Mona also sent along an audio file, in which the wail of sirens could be heard. She reported that the air-raid sirens would continue for a while.
"Idlib is deserted when the bombings begin, nobody goes outside until they are over," she says, adding that things return to some semblance of normalcy after that, at least as normal as life can be in such a situation. The next day, Mona herself is filming at the site. One sees rubble piled up along the sidewalk, and there is broken glass all around—the only indications that a deadly bombing has taken place.
Rebels in the city
The cordon around Idlib is getting tighter, and each day the Syrian army announces that it has recaptured more territory. On the other side, media reports claim Turkey sent several hundred military convoys full of tanks and artillery to the region. Mona cannot confirm the claims, writing only, "they are not in the city yet."
The radical Islamic rebel group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, however, is very much present in Idlib: "Some are in the city, others keep watch over entrances to the city at barricades they have erected. Others still are fighting Assad's troops." Mona says she has also seen foreign fighters in Idlib, but cannot say if any of them were German.
Mona says she's most fearful of the Syrian army: "My biggest fear is to fall into the hands of Assad's troops. To be raped or butchered by them." She is not afraid of death itself, however, adding, "When I'm dead, I won't be able to feel anything."