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Idlib diary: Before and after Syria's ceasefire

March 18, 2020

For now, the ceasefire negotiated by Turkey and Russia in Idlib is holding. A young Syrian woman tells DW what the situation has been like in recent weeks and how daily life has changed.

Syrien Idlib Waffenstillstand
Image: AFP/A. Watad

When she writes about life in Idlib, Mona often adds a broken heart: an emoji straight from the war.

She sent DW the following message on March 4:

"The fire has increased, the sounds are very loud. People are very scared. At the moment I don't dare to go out on the streets in Idlib."

It is a life between hope and the fear of death. Only in passing, when the airstrikes pause and weapons go silent, can one finally breathe a short sigh of relief. That has been the case since the night of March 5.

This is not the first ceasefire for Idlib, a large city in northwestern Syria, and it falls well short of a long-term peace treaty. But the deal gives the 24-year-old Mona and people like her a break, a momentary release from the grip of existential danger.

Read more: The high stakes for Turkey and Russia in Idlib

All this is taking place largely under the radar: The situation in Idlib has disappeared from the headlines because of the coronavirus pandemic. Three weeks ago, the situation was very different. On the evening of February 24, we contacted Mona via WhatsApp.

Idlib: Mona
Mona has been in regular touch with DW for over a month nowImage: Privat

"Hello Mona, how are you? How was the day?"

The answer came an hour and a half later.

"Very bad."

Then the broken heart emoji.

"Violent shelling from the air, very close to us, about 2 kilometers from here."

"Can you feel the airstrikes?"

"Of course. When it's close to my home, everything vibrates. Like an earthquake. But the worst is the noise. Scary."

If the bombs suddenly fall, there is no time to seek protection, Mona says. But there are no truly safe places anyway. At home, she feels most secure in her living room.

"I know it's naive, but the living room is surrounded on the right and left by other rooms. I always think that, if my house is bombed, I'm safest there."

We have been following Mona from a distance for over a month. All day long, she sends WhatsApp messages, audio messages and videos of her life. Her everyday life is caught between troops loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, approaching from the south with the support of Russia and Iran, and Turkish units in the north, fighting on the side of the various Islamist rebel groups who currently control Idlib.

The bitter fight

Idlib province is the last region to be contested in Syria's civil war, which is now entering its 10th year.

Since the end of 2019, the civilian situation on this last major battlefield has worsened dramatically. Just under a million people have fled Idlib within the past three months, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported on Twitter.

Most of these people desperately hold out, under catastrophic conditions, in camps on the closed border with Turkey. Mona didn't want that. She and her husband made a conscious decision to stay. They simply have no energy left to flee again, Mona says.

She spent her childhood with three brothers and two sisters in Tabqa, a small city almost 60 kilometers (35 miles) southwest of Raqqa. When the so-called Islamic State took over the city in 2014, the family moved to Idlib province, initially to the town of Kafranbel. There, two years later, Mona met the man who is now her husband, but instead of building a life together in peace and security, the young couple was soon in a constant state of flight, driven here and there by the war.

Read more: Germany pledges €100 million in aid for Idlib conflict

The military offensive of the Syrian army and its allies against the Islamist rebels who control Idlib — most prominently, the members of the al-Qaida-linked Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group — began in late April 2019.

Mona and her husband eventually decided to move to the city of Idlib. They have lived in the capital of the province since October. This last change of location coincided with the beginning of what Turkish officials termed Operation Peace Spring: On October 9, 2019, Turkey launched its large-scale military offensive against the Kurdish-dominated areas in northern Syria, initially with air and artillery attacks, then with the invasion of ground forces. The war escalated; the people in Idlib became trapped even more.

Fear and despair

On the morning of February 25, Mona wrote that there had been violent air raids during the night. Then she sent a photo of a little boy, huddled on the floor, holding his hands protectively over his head. He is Mona's nephew, her sister's 3-year-old son. The sister lives with her family a 15-minute walk away from Mona, and the two see each other regularly.

"He is afraid. It breaks my heart. I can no longer think. The picture of my nephew makes me so sad."

Then two emojis: two broken hearts.

February 26, morning.

"Everything is just bad. The situation is bad. Don't worry, I'm fine. But the shelling doesn't stop."

Another emoji: a sad face.

International media later reported that a total of 21 people were killed that day during airstrikes by Syrian and Russian forces on Idlib and the surrounding area. There were several schools and kindergartens among the targets.

"When I see bodies of dead children, I don't even know what I feel. I think it is impossible to get used to them."

Before the war started nine years ago, Mona lived a good life, she says: "I was so happy. My family was relatively wealthy, my father ran several clothing stores, we had two cars. I was a spoiled, relaxed girl." Now, any day could be her last. War alone determines life.

What follows ceasefire?

After at least 33 soldiers were killed in an airstrike on Turkish positions on February 27, Ankara launched massive retaliatory strikes and called on NATO for assistance. Internationally, concerns about a war with Turkey on one side and Syria and Russia on the other were growing.

On March 2, Mona sent an audio message. She spoke relatively calmly. Idlib had just been bombed from the air again, she reported.

"The sounds were deafening. I thought I was going to die now. I wanted it to be over quickly. It might have just lasted a minute, but it felt like a year."

The opposition Syrian Civil Defence forces, known as the White Helmets, tweeted the following day that many civilians had been killed in attacks on various targets in the province. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would meet in Moscow on March 5. After six hours of talks, Russia and Turkey announced that they had agreed on a new ceasefire for Idlib. When Mona first heard of the agreement, she didn't believe that it would happen.

She believes it will be just like in 2018, when Putin and Erdogan made another cease-fire compromise that provided for an end to the attacks by Syrian and Russian forces. Turkey, on the other hand, agreed to disarm HTS fighters. Neither side held up its end of the deal.

"The whole scenario repeats itself and is just a farce, a kind of spectacle," Mona writes.

"Can you explain what you mean?"

"I'm sorry, but I can't now. I'm so sad, I'm feeling bad."

Another frowning emoji.

March 7, morning.

"Fighter planes are currently flying. But there were no attacks. We are waiting."

'All is well'

Two days later. It was still calm as both sides had so far adhered to the ceasefire. Suddenly Mona sounded very different. She sent videos showing her friends in the city — young women strolling through shops.

"All is well in Idlib City. People are coming back to life for the first time. Me, too."

The video clips show a reviving city: many people on the streets, store displays full of goods for sale. In the images, fully veiled women walk through the picture — but also some wearing colorful headscarves. 

"Many women still wear the abaya and full veils because the armed rebel groups introduced it. But I have the impression that, because of the war, nobody really cares anymore. We can easily wear colored clothes and hijab."

Read more: Europe faces 'serious decision' on refugees amid Idlib catastrophe

A whole heart

This ceasefire has had a noticeable psychological effect on Mona.

"When I saw the people on the street and in the markets, I changed my mind. I just felt good and positive."

Still, Mona says, the war hasn't stop in the surrounding region. There were no more airstrikes. But there would still be fighting on the ground. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights regularly reports violations of the ceasefire.  

Mona now speaks of a "tense calm" in the region.

"What I would like to say to you: We remember, but not every single rocket here. We remember only when there was a massacre."

March 10, morning.

Mona has blossomed.

"The weather is beautiful. The sun is shining. The streets are full of people. Happy people. They are confident, they are leaving the house. And the bombardments have stopped."

Read more: Russia rejects UN war crime accusations

Of course, not everything can happen all of a sudden. Of course, Idlib is marked by war. Of course, the hundreds of thousands of refugees living in the region are evidence of the Syrian war.

Syrien Russland und Türkei beginnen Patrouillen in Idlib | Protest
Idlib residents protest against joint Turkish and Russian military patrols Image: AFP/A. Watad

And how fragile the situation is can be seen from the first joint patrol by Russia and Turkey in Idlib, along a security corridor on the M4 expressway. Residents set fire to car tires and blocked the road, talking about "Russian occupiers."

At the moment, Mona just wants to see the good: the emojis below her messages have looked different in the two weeks since the ceasefire began. Sometimes she sends a smiley or a rose. And sometimes a heart — a whole one.

DW's Kyra Levine contributed to this report.

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