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Near The Turkish Border, Syrian Civilians Cautiously Assess A Cease-Fire


In Syria, people are assessing something unusual - the lack of airstrikes. There are none - not on schools or on hospitals or anywhere. The Syrian government, with Russian help, had been pounding the last rebel-held province for months. A million people fled towards the Turkish border, and then Turkey started attacking Syrian forces. But they reached a cease-fire a few days ago. And NPR's Jane Arraf went to visit the area.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: On the highway south of the Turkish border, dozens of Turkish military trucks head deeper into rebel-controlled Syria. The convoy speeds past hundreds of tents pitched in fields on the side of the road, some of the 1 million Syrians who've fled their homes to escape the fighting.

We're with a Syrian journalist, Anas Tracey.

ANAS TRACEY: This is Ariha city.

ARRAF: Ariha is about 20 miles from Turkey. Like many Syrian civilians, Tracey has a radio tuned to a local civil defense channel that normally warns of Syrian government airstrikes. Regime forces are just a little over a mile from here. And the fighting has done a lot of damage, including a hospital Tracey shows us that is now a pile of rubble.

TRACEY: Russian war plan attack this building. It's completely destroyed. The civil defense say 10 people die here.

ARRAF: There's hardly anyone here in the center of town.

TRACEY: You can see this street is destroyed and this car and this store.

ARRAF: There is one truck in the square. It's loaded with mattresses and huge cooking pots, all the owners could salvage of their restaurant after a recent airstrike.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Arabic spoken).

AMER AL BAOU: (Arabic spoken).

ARRAF: Amer al-Baou says after 30 years of business, they're giving up and moving to a new town.

In better times before the war, Ariha would have been full of tourists visiting the nearby mountains. Now it's full of young fighters with beards and long hair. Most of them are with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a Turkish-backed group that was once affiliated with al-Qaida.

Further into the city, we find a tiny motorcycle repair shop and evidence that not everyone left during the fighting. In spite of the war, the owner, Abdullah Abu Hatem, adheres to the normal courtesy of offering tea.

ABDULLAH ABU HATEM: (Arabic spoken).

ARRAF: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Arabic spoken).

ARRAF: He says, no interviews before tea.

Abu Hatem says he didn't have the money to leave with his family during the fighting. He says the children were terrified.

ABU HATEM: (Through interpreter) All day long, my son cries. He hears the planes and says, Papa, I'm afraid.

ARRAF: Five of his relatives, including a sister and two brothers, have been killed over the course of the war. He says with the cease-fire, people are starting to come back. The Syrians we talked to say they're grateful that the Turks intervened in February to fight Syrian forces. There's now a cease-fire. Idlib is the last rebel-held province that Syria is fighting to take back.

A few miles away in Idlib city, we meet a group of boys, most of them younger than the war, playing marbles on the sidewalk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Arabic spoken).

ARRAF: They tell me they're not in school because their school was hit by an airstrike.

MOHAMMAD: (Arabic spoken).

ARRAF: Mohammad, who's 10, says even in the street, he was showered with broken glass. The kids have lost two years of school already over the course of the war. Mohammad says they don't go out at night because they're afraid of the airstrikes and of being abducted for ransom or for organ trafficking.

MOHAMMAD: (Arabic spoken).

ARRAF: He says if his mother makes him go out at night to open the water tank, he's so afraid his heart almost stops.

MOHAMMAD: (Arabic spoken).

ARRAF: They don't know when they'll be able to go back to school. Like all the other Syrians here, they're waiting to see if these warring powers - Russia, Syria and Turkey - will keep the cease-fire going.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Idlib, Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.