Standing at the corner of the street just across the square, Eymen Muhammad rolls his eyes at the partly ruined colossal building hovering over the area. The edifice, which used to be controlled by the Bashar Assad regime as the governorate a couple years back, now belongs to the opposition.
"Alhamdulillah," said Muhammad of his living conditions in Arabic, which means "thanks be to God." The 42-year-old is only one of millions of internally displaced Syrians despairingly striving to settle in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib amid the years-long bloodstained civil war.
The fire flares up as he bakes the popular Levantine food of Kibbeh, made of cracked wheat, meat, onions and spices in his sales booth. The peddler recounts rushing out of Homs roughly four months ago due to the unbearable oppression of the Assad regime. Fixing cars previously in his hometown, Muhammad is now shouldering the responsibility of caring for three hungry children and a wife on the streets.
Aside from the economic predicaments crippling the Syrians in the region, security is a hard-won luxury. The ferocious campaign of the Assad regime and the Russian air force on Idlib puts lives at stake day in and day out. Some 19 people from two families were killed last week alone in a single airstrike against the Maar Shureen district of the province. Neither the army nor the Russians took the blame, reiterating their assertion that they are solely in pursuit of extremist militants.
Market place of Idlib serves as the heart of the city, crawling with displaced people coming from all over the country.
The province fell into the hands of the opposition in less than five days after the Assad regime was pushed out in March 2015. The balance of power in the area has swayed back and forth between the fractions of the opposition since then.
The opposition group Syrian Salvation Government declared full authority last month across the Idlib Governorate, naming 11 ministers and a deputy minister. The so-called Salvation Government controls the Bab al-Hawa border gate to Turkey, inspects crossings and ensures the inner security to some extent.
The locals, however, are not entirely content with the security. "Everyone is afraid. Yesterday there was an attack on rural Idlib. Everyone is afraid of what Russia or the regime can do because they do not abide by the cease-fire," said Muhammad.
At least 2 million people are estimated to be residing in central Idlib at the moment. The marketplace is bustling with locals. While the shouting of the peddlers deafens the ear, the historic clock tower of Idlib welcomes men, women and children from Homs, Damascus, Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and elsewhere into the heart of the city.
A butcher shop across from the clock tower seems to be keeping up with the pace of life despite all the despair and agony. Ibrahim Damus, its owner, is performing his art, hashing the fresh meat on a stiff slab. "Whatever will happen will happen anyway. My faith is in God," he says in regard to the danger of an all-out armed campaign against Idlib, as seen in Aleppo last year.
The exquisitely historical city of Aleppo was on the verge of witnessing some of the worst bloodshed in history in 2016 as the regime and Russia hit the button to crack down on "extremist militants." Tens of thousands of trapped civilians, who had been helplessly awaiting their fates, were fortunately evacuated at the time in a deal that was initiated by the Turkish government.
A year on, fingers are crossed that Idlib does not share the same fate.
Born and raised in the city, unmarried Damus lives in a single room flat. He says fleeing his hometown has not even crossed his mind "and never will." Muhammad, though, is slightly discordant. "God forbid," he says, "if anything happens here many people will flee."
While the Russian and regime threats seem like a distant nightmare for the time being, daily troubles are inundating the population. Economic depression is discernible everywhere. The rents are too high, the incomes are disproportionately low and vital public services such as electricity, water and gas are almost nonexistent for a remarkable portion of the population.
Muhammad, one of millions of displaced Syrians, behind his food cart, cooking kibbeh made of cracked wheat, meat, onions and spices.
Damus is as vexed as anyone. "Every dollar I make goes to the rent, living and related costs. Water, electricity, prices, health, everything ... The situation from the business side is very difficult," he bemoans.
The stifling state of the economy has hit from all sides. The children, reeling under the inexorable war, are hard-hit. The two boys of 39-year-old Fatima, a female tradesperson who sells women's underwear in the city bazaar, know it quite well, maybe way better than anyone else. "Due to the economic situation," she says, "I can't send my two sons, who are 10 and 15 years old, respectively, to school."
"Education requires money. They have to work," Fatima murmurs.
The disproportionate income and expense scale of Fatima's family, a widow herself, is heartbreaking. Having to fit in a one-room apartment, she pays around $12 rent for a week. "I earn $6 a week in this job if everything goes well," says Fatima with a bitter smile on her face.
Political views, religious dissensions and military affiliations have turned Syria into a land of conflicts. Yet, locals in Idlib are united on one thing: The self-proclaimed Syrian Salvation Government must better look after the population.
"It's a process. We're making progress step by step," said an official for the government. "Things do not happen overnight. We're slowly getting there."
That being said, humanitarian aid provided from outside constitutes the backbone of the province for close to 4 million people, most of whom are internally displaced people. "We're living together. My children eat what their father can earn. It's never enough without the help of friends or humanitarian organizations," noted Muhammad.
Idlib, indeed, has been swarmed by international, above all Turkish, aid organizations. The Turkish Red Crescent, Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD) and nongovernmental organizations such as the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) cater to hundreds of thousands of people in dire need.
The IHH has single-handedly spent close to TL 1 billion ($262 million) in Syria since the war broke out in the country in 2011. The nongovernmental organization runs seven different refugee camps for internally displaced people in the Idlib region, sheltering around 200,000. It has established 34 clothing shops where Syrians can find clothes, shoes and other stuff free of charge.
The relief foundation has also sent around 15,000 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid and basic needs into Syria since the outbreak of the war. The nongovernmental organization, in this respect, leads the way among such groups in reaching out to every distant corner of the Idlib region.
The Turkish Red Crescent is there, as well. The aid organization announced that it has spent close to TL 400 million across Syria this year alone. It also established two clothing shops, one in rural Idlib and one at the city center, which operate in the same way.
When all is said and done, the idea of carrying tons of food and clothes to millions of destitute and exasperated Syrians on a daily basis with the hope in the hearts that it will all be over one day is nothing but a delusion. Everyone knows something will eventually have to give.
As Idlib bids farewell to a rare day free of bombings or airstrikes, and the sun sets on a chilly December day, all are wondering how long their luck will hold out. Will the fate of this brittle city be similar to that of Aleppo? The traumatizing wait is getting too much to bear for people here amid all these baffling questions.
A few years ago, Muhammad had had no idea what life had in store for him, but he had hope. Now, with terrifying possibilities drawing nearer every day, revealing words fall out of his chapped lips.
"Another journey of fleeing and escaping," it is.