“You grind charcoal in a cup and pad it with a layer of cotton and you tape the cup to a plastic bag,” says Bilal Bayoush, a resident of Syria’s last rebel stronghold, Idlib province. “Then you have a mask to protect you from gas attacks.”
Bilal makes these improvised gas masks for family and friends during his nightly patrol for chemical missiles over Idlib. Lately, he’s been making more of them.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has vowed to win back control of his country, one grizzly battle at a time. And his sights are now trained on the last rebel-held province in Syria: Idlib, where 3 million people live. The U.N. has said that Assad and Russia’s offensive on Idlib could create the “worst humanitarian catastrophe” of the 21st century.
As the dictator’s major offensive looms over the city, residents are bracing for the worst.
Bilal is among them, focused on preparing his home for any and every possibility. He’s buying extra boxes of diapers and Pepsi, which he also uses to make gas masks on the fly. And he’s trained his family of five where to run when missiles start raining down.
He’s especially worried that chemical weapons will be used on his family. With good reason.
Despite repeated warnings and symbolic missile strikes by the U.S. meant to deter Assad from using chemical weapons on his own people, residents of Idlib hold little hope the ruthless strongman will take heed. According to the United States, Assad’s forces have already used chemical weapons at least 50 times since Syria’s civil war began seven years ago.
Knowing that chemical missiles are barely heard when people are asleep, Bilal volunteered to stay up while his family sleeps. He’s studied the exact hours of previous chemical attacks and has concluded that if an attack happens, it will be between the hours of 2 and 8 a.m. So he’s changed his sleep schedule accordingly.
These days, Bilal sleeps from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., before beginning his night watch. At around 6 a.m. his mother wakes up and takes over. Bilal’s wife is pregnant with their second child, so he tries his best to comfort her. He tells her everything is fine and under control, although he knows it’s not.
Idlib’s 3 million residents are exploring different ways to protect themselves from the looming battle. More than 30,000 have already fled their homes in northwest Syria since Syrian government and allied forces resumed air and ground bombardments there last week.
But fleeing homes is not an option for hundreds of thousands of families here.
“When I see them playing in the street, I have to turn my eyes away. I can’t stop imagining bad scenarios.”
According to Firas Benesh, a father of three, the camps are overpopulated and in disastrous shape. The homes to rent in the relatively safe areas on the Turkish borders cost $300 per month, which is prohibitively expensive for most families in Idlib, Firas said.
With few other options, Firas plans to stay with his family and rely on god’s mercy.
Others, like Rania Kisar, have no desire to leave the city they love and call home. For Rania, the choice is an especially difficult one. Although her American citizenship gives her the privilege to escape the war in Idlib, she has no intention of leaving. “People know that I could have left, but I never did. If they saw me leaving now, they will be very scared,” she told VICE News. “I won't leave my people. We’ve been together through good and bad. I was raised in the United States on a value that when you see someone who needs help, you go help unconditionally.”
Rania was a director of admissions at a University in Dallas, but the Syrian uprising changed her life. In 2012 she visited Idlib to support the Syrian revolution there. She never left, eventually founding an academy to empower young people, called SHINE.
According to Rania, among all the armed groups that have attacked Idlib in the past, including Al Nusra Front and ISIS, the Syrian regime remains the most terrifying.
“The Syrian regime is not only going to rape all girls but also kids, they hate us that much!” she said.
Rania says she’s now constantly worried and filled with anxiety. She says she can’t help but cry when she sees kids playing in the street.
“When I see them playing in the street, I have to turn my eyes away. I can’t stop imagining bad scenarios,” she said. According to her, not many people have left yet, but a large number of the people, at least the ones she knows, have packed up their family photos, documents, and essentials, to be ready to leave at any second.
Cover image: A boy tries on an improvised gas mask in Idlib__, Syria September 3, 2018. Picture taken September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi