AL-SAHRIAH, Syria - Under bombardment from combat aircraft, tanks and rocket launchers, at least 100,000 people have fled the towns and villages north of Hama in central Syria in the past 10 days, rebels say. But shelter has run out in this part of northern Syria, and many have been forced to live in the open or even in nearby caves.
The latest wave of displacement in Syria's tide of misery was set in motion when the government, seeking to reverse rebel gains, began a heavy-weapons assault on Kernaz, a town of 20,000 that controls access to the al-Ghab Valley, where rebels and the Syrian army now live in a tense coexistence.
Residents fled in farm vehicles, rickety cars and on foot to this modest village of 100 houses. One family here took in 49 guests. "If we have two rooms, we give one to the displaced people," said Khalid al Ali, 28, the imam of the small Sunni Muslim mosque. "We share everything."
The displaced kept on coming, and soon the only shelter left was two small limestone caves across the road from the village.
This much can be said of life inside a cave: It's out of the rain. But there's no electricity, heat or running water, and inside it's cold, dark and damp.
"It's unbearable here. Last night I was sick coughing, and I had to wrap myself in blankets," said Um Ali, 32, who fled Kafr Naboudeh, a town of 25,000 near Kernaz, when it came under fire from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. "He made us homeless," said Musa, Um Ali's husband.
A large white truck pulled up in front of the olive grove that conceals the cave, and men from the Farouq Brigade, a rebel force that has fought in the region for much of the last 22 months, dispensed pup tents donated by Syrian businessmen in Jordan. "We are giving them to those most in need - the people in the caves and on the streets," said Azar Obeisi, 53, who previously was a real estate agent in Hama.
International aid organizations have yet to reach this part of Syria, and the thousands now living in misery clearly depend on local residents and the rebels for food and shelter. The United Nations and most private aid organizations won't enter a country at war without the permission of the government, which Assad's regime hasn't granted.
Syrian doctors attending to the wounded in makeshift mobile clinics say they lack almost all the necessary medicines and equipment, and what they have they've bought with their own funds. The Farouq Brigade, which controls much of north-central Syria, distributes bags of food to those living in the open or in the caves, but it isn't clear where it comes from.
For some in Syria, a country that has had human settlements for thousands of years, it is a return to the Stone Age.
Al-Sahriah's two caves served as burial chambers during the Roman Empire. Stripped by looters in the centuries since, they became dens for animals.
"This cave was full of stones. It took us two days to empty it," said Um Omar, 36, who is one of 16 inhabitants from three related families. There was also a layer of sheep droppings, some of which they removed. The rest they covered with soil. A tarpaulin became a floor, and the cave was their new home.
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. His growth is stunted, and he needs to see a doctor in Damascus, but there is no way to get there.
Still, she counts her blessings. On Wednesday, she said, "10 people came here, looking for a cave to live in. They were unlucky."