With cease -Fire in place, syrians Return for belongings, but not stay
A few of the hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting are trickling back. But few, if any, say they believe the quiet will last.
The site of an attack that killed at least 36 Turkish soldiers last month in Balyoun, Syria.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
BALYOUN, Syria — Families sifted through the bombed-out ruins of their shops and homes on Thursday in the front-line Syrian town of Balyoun, using a fragile cease-fire between Russia and Turkey to retrieve their belongings but voicing little trust that it would last.
“We will never come back,” said Isam Alloush, a flash of sorrow crossing his face.
His truck was piled high with mattresses and a galvanized water tank he was taking to a camp near the Turkish border, where eight members of his family are living in a tent. “It’s a big lie,” he said of the cease-fire. “They have been cheating us for years.”
Balyoun is one of a line of ghostly, battered towns and villages across the southern half of Idlib Province, emptied of their inhabitants over three months as Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air power, blasted their way northward in an effort to seize control of the last rebel-held region in Syria.
South of the city of Idlib, the towns and villages were mostly deserted, the smashed buildings and shrapnel scars on walls clear signs of the heavy aerial bombardment and artillery fire over the last several weeks.
The city of Ariha was nearly empty on Thursday.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Residents gathering their belongings said they had fled the bombardment in a rush and were now living in tents or the shells of buildings near the Turkish border. Nearly one million people have been displaced in the past three months, most of them now crammed into a narrow stretch a few miles deep along the border.
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The onslaught ceased 11 days ago, when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed on a cease-fire, spurring Syrians to race back to their villages to salvage what they could.
A Russian surveillance drone buzzed above for several hours, forcing people to seek cover in the ruins, but otherwise the skies were quiet. The crash of a single artillery shell sounded in the distance — fired by Syrian government forces, civil defense teams said.
Civilians said they hoped the cease-fire would turn into a lasting peace, but few said they believed the Russian-Syrian offensive was over.
“If there is a real cease-fire and a real agreement, we will move back,” said Mahmoud Masri, 42. “We trust the Turks, but we don’t trust the Russians because they slaughtered us.”
Muhammad Hussein Alloush, 10, collected items from his family home in Balyoun.Credit...Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
The situation in Balyoun exposes the flaws in the cease-fire agreement. The town remains in rebel hands and marks the front line of the Syrian forces’
But it lies six miles south of the M4 highway, and so is excluded from the de-escalation zone that is to be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops.
Residents overwhelmingly said they would not stay if the Russians brought Syrian government forces to the town.
Backed by Russia, the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has been set on regaining control of two strategic highways that cross Idlib Province: the M5, which runs between the capital, Damascus, and the northern city of Aleppo, and the M4, which links eastern and western Syria.
Mr. Erdogan, who backs Syrian groups opposed to Mr. Assad, had insisted that government forces withdraw to positions agreed to with Moscow in 2018 that planned for both highways to be demilitarized zones.
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