ATAREB, Syria (Reuters) - For two months, Dana and her 12 children fled from village to village trying to escape bombardment by Syrian forces. Finally, she gave up and took them back home.
“Everywhere we went, the bombs found us. If we’re going to die, I want it to be in our own house,” she says, rocking two young daughters in her lap.
After months of relentless shelling across Syria’s northern provinces, many Syrians like Dana have given up trying to flee and instead have tried to live a life under the bombs.
Despite the shudders of artillery fire in the distance, young women in Syria’s northern town of Atareb stroll their babies in prams along cratered pavements and past collapsed buildings while children play football in the street.
Farmers pick cotton in the surrounding fields, ignoring the scorch marks left from mortar bombs around them.
Outside the cracked walls of her grey concrete home, Dana, a small woman in a yellow veil, has stacked piles of shrapnel that she and her children sweep out of her house each day.
“You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I still cry if I hear a fighter jet come. My kids and I all know our place - some behind the fridge, or behind the washer, in the backroom,” she sighs, wringing her hands, which are covered in scratches from her shattered windows.
Atareb, a town of about 20,000 in Aleppo province, became a ghost town two months ago when the army began heavy bombardment to try to root out rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
The shelling has not stopped since then, but many residents say they are tired of fleeing, only to find their next refuge becoming a target as well. A truce marking a Muslim holiday that was due to have come into effect on Friday crumbled almost before it began.
Across the country, Syrians have become weary at the 19-month revolt that has turned into civil war, and some are starting to head home instead of escaping across the borders.
With the economy in ruins, most are jobless and cannot afford to travel. Turkey is now letting in only Syrians with passports, and conditions at the ramshackle displacement camps inside the country are so bad that many poorer Syrians prefer to risk staying at home.
Locals estimate about 30 percent of residents have returned to Atareb. Bakeries are open and vendors lay out their vegetables for sale along charred storefronts in the town’s marketplace, the rooftops riddled by sprays of shrapnel.
Ignoring the danger, one man has decided to rebuild. Hassan Saeed, a portly man in a grey robe, watches three young men layer wet concrete along the second floor. He is desperate to reopen his chicken roastery.
“A rich man can afford to wait for the shelling to stop, but I need to work. I have eight children to feed,” he said.
More than 32,000 people have died in the unrest, a number that has rapidly escalated since Assad’s forces began to use air power to strike at rebel-held areas.
“These days, we are happy when it is just mortar bombs or rockets instead of the jets. Every day we get hit with something. You never know what it will be,” says Mohammed Sayed, a greying 50-year-old resident. He sits on his rusted motor bike, examining the damage on his street.
Several houses have collapsed, spewing their contents out and leaving a trail of destroyed lives - a baby’s shirt, tattered papers, a spoon.
“That was a vacuum bomb. They drop it from a plane and for 20 seconds nothing, then you hear it sucks up the air and bam! Everything collapses,” Sayed said.
Dana’s family is the only one on her street. A third of the houses are now only dusty piles of rubble.
“We rented a house in a safe area closer to the border for a month but we couldn’t afford it any more. I sold all of my jewellery and got about 25,000 lira ($370) for it. But now I only have 5,000 left and my husband still can’t find a job,” she said.
Wealthier residents have sent food and water to those who have returned. Atareb has not had electricity or running water in more than a month.
Many blame the army, but others accuse the rebel Free Syrian Army for bringing them trouble.
“Everywhere these rebels go, they bring destruction,” says a woman swathed in black, cradling her baby in the doorway, surrounded by rubble. Houses on either side have toppled onto hers like dominos.
“The situation speaks for itself. It is up to God’s will now. Any moment, we could be next,” she says. “But I won’t leave my country, and I won’t leave home. We are half-dead already. At some point, your hope is just to die with some dignity.”
Editing by Dominic Evans and Alison Williams