"I saw a woman bleed to death under a tree alongside the road and there was no one to help her," said Ahmed Hashem, 60. "There wasn’t even anyone to dig her grave."
Hashem's lips quivered and he turned his face to a wall.
Hashem, his wife and three small children, left their home in Syria's northwestern Idlib province earlier this month, after surviving more tragedies in the past few months than they had seen in almost nine years of war. Almost a million people have fled Idlib in the past three months, and many say they don’t think they will ever go home.
"It was a catastrophe," he began, recounting the many times he witnessed the deaths of families.
When they fled, it was well after midnight and the road was crowded with cars. The motorists did not dare turn on their headlights or even light a cigarette, for fear of attracting an airstrike. One bomb hit ahead of the convoy, forcing the people in the cars to stop and hide in the bushes.
That’s when he saw a woman giving birth under a tree. When she started to bleed, there was no doctor or nurse to call, and no hospital to rush to.
They waited while the woman bled and screamed. Her body was left behind. It is not clear what happened to the baby.
The families traveled on when they thought it was safe enough, stopping their cars later as they skidded on what they thought was oil on the road. They got out and found the blood and flesh of sheep and goats that had been killed in an airstrike.
The trip to Manbij, where Hashem heard he could find safety, would normally take two to three hours, but that night it took 15. The families left behind their homes, almost all of their belongings and the bodies of loved ones.
"I’m not crying for myself," Hashem said, no longer bothering to hide his tears. "I’m crying for these people. Are we human?"
Hashem said he was relieved when his family finally arrived at the gates of Manbij. Most of the other families had fled north to the closed Turkish border, where camps are so crowded people are sleeping in the fields, and children have frozen to death.
From Manbij, they were taken to Raqqa, formerly the capital of the Islamic State group’s self-declared "caliphate." A large housing complex, once home to foreign IS fighters, now crumbles under the weight of bombed-out roofs spilling rubble along the sides of the buildings.
Hashem poured water on powdered cement, patching up a wall he was building to cover a gaping hole the war left behind. Other families have bought or borrowed plastic sheets to cover windows shattered long ago. As he fixed up his new home amid the rubble, Hashem said that for him, the war will never be over.
Twenty men from Hashem’s family died, including his 34-year-old son, when the son and a group of friends went searching for work last year. Even back then, planes with bombs and machine gunners hovered in the sky, shooting ordinary people on the move.
"If anyone from my area tells you they lost no loved ones in the war, they are lying," Hashem said.
Last rebel stronghold
Since 2011, Idlib has been known as a rebel stronghold, but families say that long gone are the days when Idlib's youth protested and then fought for social and economic freedom.
In recent weeks, the Syrian government has been moving toward the city, capturing villages as the people flee bombardments in Hashem's area, Jabal al-Zawiya, a collection of about 40 villages southeast of Idlib city. Locals say it is famous for olive farms and olive oil.
Fighting back on the ground are mostly Turkish-backed militias, Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate, and other militant groups. A victory for any of these groups, including the government, will displace him and his neighbors permanently, Hashem said. They won’t feel safe under the rule of any of those groups.
"The dead are happier," he added. "They do not have to suffer this grief."