Syrians hide underground to escape struggle for control

The BBC's Ian Pannell meets Syrian children living underground

A small band of rebel fighters pointed towards a gaping hole in the ground in the middle of an orchard.

"Sometimes families live there to keep safe," I was told.

We were in the north of Syria, on one of the country's multitude of frontlines, the thunderous sound of war ebbing and flowing around us.

Steep, rough-cut steps led the way down. The fighters said it was an old Roman burial chamber.

We edged forward carefully, torches in hand, to explore the abandoned hideaway.

It was immediately clear that it was not empty at all. Seven small pairs of eyes were watching us intently.

Sitting quietly in the dank gloom of this subterranean cavern were seven boys, grubby faces and eyes wide with fear of the strangers in their midst.

'All afraid'

I asked who the eldest was. The boys all looked at 13-year-old Mohammed and he reluctantly spoke up.

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In the softest of voices, he explained that they were brothers and cousins and that they were hiding there.

"It's bad here," said Mohammed. "We're all afraid, that's why we're staying here. We're afraid of the bombing and the shelling."

I asked about his parents.

His father had been killed in the fighting weeks ago. His mother was looking after them but she had told the boys to hide while she went off to look for food. But that was hours ago and the boys were still waiting on their own; cold, hungry and scared.

As we got ready to leave, Mohammed spoke to our translator. "What did he say?" I enquired. "He asked: 'When will my mum be back?'"

Ground to dust

The conflict in Syria is threatening the very fabric of the country. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been uprooted as the fighting and the destruction get ever worse.

"If you stay here, you should expect that you could be killed at any time," said Abdul Rahman.

The young fighter had a point. His town in Aleppo province has been under bombardment for weeks. The population of more than 100,000 has been reduced to just a hundred or so as people fled the fighting.

The town is a testament to the shocking struggle for control of Syria.

Syrian children outside a home in Idlib province Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Syria and millions uprooted

Entire homes have been ground to dust. The outside walls of buildings have been ripped off, baring the battered remnants of the lives inside.

The roads are blackened with the hallmarks of war: the burnt carcases of tanks, vicious shards of shrapnel and gaping holes where rockets have landed.

Every few minutes another artillery shell is launched. There is a two- to three-second hiatus before it lands and explodes, and in that brief time people stop and listen - waiting to hear where it lands, hoping it is somewhere else.

Hundreds of thousands of people have struggled across Syria's borders to escape this, but many more than that have been made homeless in their own land.

Families sleep in large plastic greenhouses on farms, tents have been erected in gardens, and homes that were built to house a single family now shelter dozens of people.

'Liberation'

We met hundreds of internally displaced people living in a small Alawite village in the north.

The Alawites are adherents of a minority Islamic sect who, led by the Assad family, have essentially run Syria for more than 40 years.

The people living in the village today are not Alawites, though; they're Sunnis who are the majority in Syria and dominant in the armed rebellion.

A local political leader explained how the Alawites had fled as the Sunni fighters advanced in what he described as the "liberation" of the village.

I asked how you could liberate a village if the residents did not actually want you to be there.

He said the Alawites had sided with President Bashar al-Assad and that was why they ran away, but he insisted the battle was with the government, not one specific group.

I have heard many insist that this is not a sectarian war. I do not doubt the sincerity of some who claim that. But whether by default or design, the country is becoming increasingly divided along dangerous lines.

Gordian knot

The presence of growing numbers of influential hardcore Islamist fighters who regard the Alawites as impure only exacerbates that. As does government propaganda.

Syrians ride a motorcycle past the remains of a building allegedly destroyed by an explosive device dropped from a Syrian warplane in the town of Kfar Nubul, Idlib province (11 February 2013) The task of rebuilding Syria and its economy is staggering

I was shown a tiny Alawite building, a place of worship, that had been burned. A fighter gestured with pride how he had shot up the inside. It is an ominous warning of what may follow.

There appears to be no end to the civil war in sight.

Even now, the task of rebuilding the country and its economy is staggering but if the ethnic and religious cohesion of Syria starts to come apart, that will raise questions about the very viability of the state.

This is the Gordian knot facing the new US Secretary of State, John Kerry.

His challenge is to find a workable political settlement that ends the war.

But so much blood has been shed, so many lives destroyed and positions have become so hardened that it may already be impossible to stop Syria's civil war.

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