AL AIDO, Syria — In this green, mountainous part of northwest Syria, the boom of shells vibrates every few hours through dozens of villages abandoned by their terrified Kurdish inhabitants.
Small groups of rebel fighters have now taken up position in some of the empty homes, patrolling the rocket-scarred streets in vehicles with markings declaring them to be the “Commission for Civilian Protection”.
But with the civilians gone, the insurgents’ real duty is to prevent any advance by regime forces located around five kilometres away.
“This is effectively the front line,” the grizzled 65-year-old commander of one unit, going by the name Abu Feras, told AFP.
“There’s no clashes between the FSA [rebel Free Syrian Army] and the regime, only shelling and bombing from the regime positions,” he said.
According to Feras, regime officers are afraid that their platoons of conscripts could desert at the first opportunity, while the rebels are too low on weapons and ammunition to forge ahead.
The result is a stalemate which has made life impossible for the Kurdish civilians who used to live in the 60 villages in the area, in the northern reaches of Latakia province.
Almost all have left, moving farther north towards the Turkish border where they feel safer.
For now, they are crammed into small houses left vacant by better-off Syrians near the border and who are now waiting out the war in Turkey. But more arrive each day, putting a strain on both lodgings and charity.
A minority traditionally at the poorer end of Syrian society, the Kurds have neither the money nor the means to stay in Turkey. Instead they can be seen cooking bread or drinking tea by the side of the road.
In Khirbet Al Joz, a village butting the border, a local farmer was converting a parcel of his own land for use as a refugee camp able to shelter 10,000 people.
A large yellow bulldozer was seen levelling the earth for the 2,400 tents to be supplied by a Qatari company, which the farmer, Abdel Nasser Ahmed Fezoo, said was acting under Turkish authorisation.
“We want to build a refugee camp in an area under FSA control, close to the border,” Fezoo said.
“There will be five to six people per tent. Bottled water will be delivered through Turkey. They’ll use ground water for washing. And I’ll put latrines down by the creek,” he said.
Fezoo said he came up with the idea two months ago, when he saw that his village was “full”.
Funding and support, he said, was coming from Turkish donors — and from one foreign organisation that he declined to identify.
A 75-year-old Kurdish woman baking bread outside a borrowed house, Khadija, said she came to Khirbet Al Joz because shelling destroyed her home village, and a sniper shot dead her 21-year-old son.
“Life here is terrible. There is no electricity, no food,” she said. “I hope the new camp will be a good place.”
In the local school, refugees, most of them women and children, have taken over the classrooms, and their donkeys now graze in the courtyard.
One of the men speaking on their behalf, Abu Kosai, said: “It’s very bad here. What do you think, when you see a child scrounging for firewood?”
He urged support to have the new camp built as quickly as possible.
The plan for the camp is part of efforts to combat a refugee crisis in Syria. More than 650,000 people have fled abroad, according to UN figures, while countless more have been displaced within the country.