Because they had left Kafr Naboudeh in a panic, the only food they brought was powdered thyme, olives and olive oil, known here as everyman’s dinner. Now, thanks to a Farouq Brigade packet, they have wheat, rice and other basics. Um Omar’s daughter, who calls herself Um Yusuf, draws water from a nearby well and buys milk from a farmer for her 14-month-old son. Yusuf’s growth is stunted and he needs to see a doctor in Damascus, but there is no way to get there.
The south-facing cave is warmer and lighter than the first hole in the ground, but its location also brings risks. For two days this past week, the family did not leave the cave because the bombing and shelling of Kernaz was so intense.
“We are all coughing. All of us are sick,” said Um Omar.
Still, she counts her blessings. On Wednesday, she said, “10 people came here, looking for a cave to live in. They were unlucky.”
Another passerby drove the message home. “A woman came to us and said: ‘You are lucky. You have only three families. There are caves with 10 families in them.’”
Whatever the distress of the cave dwellers, Mohammad Mahmoud Ezedin, a laborer aged 41, has it worse. He brought his and his brother’s families to Al Sahriah from Kafr Naboudeh in their Isuzu pickup truck, and that is where they live. They left behind a house with three rooms, a kitchen and bath, and it since has been destroyed “by a random shell,” he said. The 10 people who inhabit the Isuzu remove their shoes before getting in, as is the custom before entering any residence in Syria.
“Our life is miserable,” said Ezedin.
Rebel officials estimate that up to 150,000 were made homeless in the current government offensive. But Abdur Rahman al Hamud, the civilian “revolutionary commander” of the Kernaz Martyrs Battalion, said the number could be higher, because “99 per cent of the people in 10 towns and villages have left their homes.”
In Kernaz, “you can now find only cattle and revolutionaries,” he said in an interview at his headquarters.
He said the Syrian army has deployed 1,500 troops, about 100 tanks and an unspecified number of rocket launchers in its offensive and is lobbing as many as 800 shells a day into Kernaz, much of which lies in ruins. Aircraft bombed the town daily for eight days, and earlier this week, after rebels shot down a MiG-23 combat aircraft, the regime fired ground-to-ground missiles at Kernaz from Adalia, a town dominated by Alawites, the Shiite Muslim sect to which Assad and much of Syria’s elite belong.
Hamud says the rebels consist about about 1,000 troops armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and a few anti-aircraft weapons and machine guns. So far, he said, the rebels have inflicted 200 casualties on the army, including 70 killed. He said rebel casualties were six dead and 12 wounded. It was impossible to verify the figures.
Hamud said that without heavier weapons, the rebels could lose Kernaz, which he described as a strategic point.
“Kernaz is the gate to the northern countryside of Hama. If the regime can get Kernaz, they will be able to take Kafr Naboudeh. Then they cut the way between Idlib and Hama,” dividing the rebel-controlled area in northern Syria.
McClatchy special correspondent Mousab Alhamadee contributed to this report.