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ATAREB, Syria: 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 soccer 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.
Atareb, a town of about 20,000 in Aleppo province, became a ghost town two months ago when the army began 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. 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 marketplace, the rooftops riddled by sprays of shrapnel.
Several houses have collapsed, spewing their contents out and leaving a trail of destroyed lives - a baby’s shirt, tattered papers, a spoon. Dana’s family is the only one on her street. A third of the houses are now only dusty piles of rubble. Many blame the army, but others accuse the rebel Free Syrian Army for bringing them trouble.
“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.”