The uneasy normal of 'Free Syria'
The territory between the northern city of Aleppo and the Turkish border is firmly under rebel control, but aerial attacks from the Syrian Army leave residents far from safe.
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"It's the safest area on the ground, but we don't know if it's safe from planes," says Saladin Danoon, who works at the Relief Office, an independent Syrian group formed to help refugees and poor Syrians affected by the conflict.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Battle for the heart of Syria: inside Aleppo
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In Azaz, the largest Syrian town before the border crossing, Mohammad Abu Ahmad sits in the shade on the edge of what used to be his neighborhood before it was destroyed by a government jet late last month. The attack killed more than 40 people and wounded more than 100. Fighting there ended weeks before the strike, and residents say there were no military targets in the neighborhood.
"No one saw the attack coming. The jet just came, dropped the bomb, and left," Mr. Ahmad says.
He is now waiting for a truck to come and clear away the rubble. Amid the wreckage he hopes to find his brother's body and any salvageable possessions. Despite what he's endured and no matter what dangers arise, Ahmad says he will not leave his homeland.
"Some of us want to live here in tents. We'll stay even if Assad comes here to try to kill us again," he says.
Even the few who haven't lost loved ones or possessions face new challenges: Wartime inflation and economic depression remain persistent problems, with prices climbing anywhere from 20 to 200 percent and most people unable to work as the constant fighting forces most businesses and offices to close.
"We have some savings, but it is almost finished. We have enough money left for maybe a month or two weeks," says Bakhari Hajr, a college student. He now spends most of his days at a local bread shop, where he shops for his family and volunteers to help maintain order in lines that can last for up to three hours due to food shortages.
Many of those who have fled now face grim prospects as refugees.
Laham Hijazi lost his right leg below the knee and his vision in a bombing about nine months ago. His family sold everything they had so they could afford to flee to Aleppo, which was still calm then. When fighting broke out there late last month, they joined more than 100,000 Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey. At the peak of the exodus, still ongoing, 5,000 people crossed the border every day.
But after living in a tent and struggling to receive medical treatment, Mr. Hijazi and his family decided to return to Syria, where they now number among the country's 1.2 million internally displaced people. They live with other refugees inside a school in Azaz, sleeping inside classrooms, with as many as 17 to a room.
One room has been converted into a combination shower and kitchen and about 300 people share 10 toilets. Most of those living in the school have fled and resettled multiple times in the last year; have few possessions; and have little, if any, money left.
"I don't want to go anywhere now. I just want to stay here in Syria and die in my own country," Hijazi says.