RAQQA, SYRIA - "If my children behave badly I tell them I will take them back to Idlib," says Abeel, a 36-year-old mother of nine children, smiling sadly at her joke. "Then they listen to me."

Most children don't fear their homes, she says. But her children are terrified of returning to the near-constant bombardments of the past three months in Idlib province. One of her sons was killed in an airstrike two years ago.

After nine years of war, more than half of the Syrian people have been displaced, like Abeel and her family, who now have fled the war five times. The battle in Idlib, however, where the war appears to be reaching a bloody conclusion, has created an unprecedented exodus.

Abeel, 36, with her children who all fled from Idlib a week ago during the night, are seen in Raqqa, Syria, Feb. 23, 2020. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

And in a bullet-ridden housing complex once occupied by Islamic State militants in Raqqa, many families say they see no option to ever go home.

"I saw my own child die in front of me and another one was injured," Abeel continues. "How can I possibly forget? What about my husband? I don't know where he is. What if I lose him as well? It's best to stay here."

When Abeel arrived a week ago, there were no apartments available among the crumbling buildings, with roofs collapsing from long-ago airstrikes. For now, she is staying with her sister-in-law and her husband. All 11 people sleep in the same room.

Deeb Zara'a, paralyzed from the waist down after being hit by shrapnel in a battle with IS militants, is pictured in Raqqa, Syria, Feb. 22, 2020. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

"It took us two days to get here," she says. "We drove without headlights because even the hint of a light would make them shoot at us."

A few doors down, Deeb Zara'a, a father of three, is paralyzed from the waist down. During battles in 2013 with Islamic State militants, he was hit by shrapnel and has been bedridden since. He once farmed olives and sold olive oil. Now he relies entirely on humanitarian aid and handouts.

Bombs started raining down on his neighborhood three months ago, he explains, but he left only recently. Fleeing home without the use of his legs seemed almost impossible.

"But then there was no one left," he says. "I couldn't survive on my own."

Searching for safety   

Most of the nearly 1 million people displaced from Idlib in the past three months have gone north toward the closed Turkish border, where aid groups have run out of shelters, and children have frozen to death.

When Islamic State militants were defeated, they left behind half-destroyed buildings now housing displaced families from Idlib, in Raqqa, Syria, Feb. 23, 2020. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

Here in Raqqa, displaced families patch windows with plastic and cover the holes in the roofs with tarps. There is still room for more people, but the road is dangerous and many families cannot get through, according to officials.  

In the coming weeks and months, though, the war is expected to move into Idlib's city center, and towns near Raqqa already are building new camps, expecting more waves of families.  There are still roughly 2 million people remaining in Idlib city and the surrounding countryside.   

New camps are being set up in anticipation of more mass displacements as the battle for Idlib continues, outside Manbij, Syria, Feb. 20, 2020. (Halan Akoiy/VOA)

Without knowing the scale of the crisis to come, local leaders already are looking to the future, wondering if families will remain displaced permanently, or if one day they will be able to start rebuilding at home.

'No one dares go back'

Should the war end as expected, in a victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, some families say they cannot return home because Idlib is known as a rebel stronghold, and they fear the government will arrest them, whether or not they were part of the rebellion.

Ahmed Hashem, 60, patches up an apartment that once housed foreign IS fighters before they were defeated in 2017, in Raqqa, Syria, Feb. 23, 2020. (Heather Murdock/VOA)

A solution, says Haitham Haj Abdullah, the director of the Idlib Council for Internally Displaced Persons in Raqqa, would have to include an end to the fighting and an agreement guaranteeing returnees' safety.

"No one dares to go back now," he says.

But many families say all of the current warring parties in Idlib are responsible for the carnage, and they won't feel safe at home, no matter who wins.

"Imagine someone bleeding to death in front of you, and yet you cannot do anything," says Ahmed Hashem, a 60-year-old father, who once had a farm. "You are a human and they are also a human."

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