Surviving Syria's civil war
Surviving Syria's civil war

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Surviving Syria's civil war 02:42

Inside rebel-held Syria, where children beg to die

Updated 2321 GMT (0721 HKT) January 18, 2017

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Idlib province, Syria (CNN)A massive white Islamic flag signals our entry into rebel-held northern Syria on a cold, cloudy winter day.

The road is dotted with signs: "Smoking is a sin," and "Look only at what Allah wants you to see" -- this second one urging people not to leer at women or watch Hollywood movies.
As we make our way through the hills of Idlib province, west of Aleppo, our driver Abdullah (not his real name) tells us jets have just bombed Maarrat Misreen, a 15 or 20-minute drive away.
"They say there is a ceasefire," he sighs. "Maybe in Aleppo. But there is still bombing in other parts of the country."
The former rebel-held Ansari district of Aleppo; Syrian government forces retook the city in December 2016.
    Idlib is almost all that remains of the Syrian opposition's dream of an independent state, and the fractured political and militia groups are all trying to stake their claim to part of an ever-shrinking pie.
    Our instinct is to head to Maarrat Misreen immediately, but our escorts all say it's too dangerous; once the planes are overhead there is no telling what they will decide to target next.
    The closest we can get to the bombed town is a hospital, its parking lot overrun with vehicles, fighters, and those mourning the dead. As a woman wails, her pain piercing through the shouting, a man puts his hand in front of our camera and yells at us to stop filming.
    It's not clear who is in control, and allegiances here are murky, since eastern Aleppo's fall back into regime hands has left all of the rebel groups crammed into this one area, jostling for position.

    No target off limits

      We drive on towards one of the makeshift refugee camps that dot the hilly landscape and Abdullah, who worked as a lawyer before civil war tore his homeland apart, gathers more information about the attack on Maarrat Misreen as he drives.
      Activists tell him nine people were killed and 26 wounded when a market, bakery and other sites were hit. Women and children are among the dead. Jabhat al-Nusra, which is not part of the ceasefire agreement, is said to have checkpoints nearby.
      A CNN crew saw body bags at a hospital near the site of a strike on the town of Maarat Misreen.
      But then again, this is Syria, where no target -- hospitals, schools -- is off limits. Where red lines are crossed with no consequences. Where atrocities are committed with no accountability.
      And where children beg to die.
      "They bombed us, and in just three minutes -- not three hours -- they destroyed our entire neighborhood," says Umm Bilal.
        Her seven-year-old son, Bilal, stands next to her, looking warily up at us. "He asks why are there so many strikes?" Umm Bilal says. "He starts to cry. Sometimes he even says, 'I want to die.'"
        How can a mother respond to that? What promises can she make to her child when she can't even be certain she can keep him safe?
        Thousands of Syrians fled Aleppo in December as government forces retook the city from rebels.

        Aleppo's displaced citizens

        Most of those here are from Aleppo. The children chase us, cheeks pink, noses red with the cold as clothing hangs, half frozen, from lines that whip about in the wind. There are armed men here too, ostensibly protecting the camp.
        Umm Bilal's family is among those who were evacuated -- or, as they see it, forcibly displaced -- from rebel-held eastern Aleppo in December, after months living under siege and relentless bombing.
        Her head shaking with emotion, she explains: "Our home was destroyed, not even a single paper is left, and we suffered to get out. We were forced to leave with indignity, this is how it was."
        A Syrian girl evacuated from rebel-held eastern Aleppo, eats after arriving in opposition-controlled Khan al-Assal.
          What is the point in telling you all this she asks, wearily?
          It's a question we have been asked time and time again, whether by Syrians still inside their country, those living as refugees, or along the wretched route through Europe.
          I can't argue that there is a definitive point. I can't argue that it will make a difference to bare her soul to strangers.
          I can't argue that the world needs to hear it, that we need to tell the story of what is happening in Syria. It already has. We already have.
          But we can't stay silent, we can't give up. So I tell her that. And then I silently repeat it to myself.
          Many families have found temporary shelter in makeshift refugee camps in Idlib province.

          Burning clothes for warmth

          In their final days in Aleppo, Umm Bilal's family frantically moved from area to area as the regime and its allies advanced on the ground and Russian airstrikes flattened entire neighborhoods.
          Twice the buildings she and her family sheltered in were hit; her husband was wounded; their four children pulled from the rubble covered in dust but, thankfully, physically unharmed.
          Their last four days there were spent on the street, cold, hungry, and afraid.
          "I had to burn my children's clothes to make heat for them," she recalls. "I had two bags of their clothes and I burned them because it was so cold."
          Having fled their homes, many Syrian families find themselves stuck in refugee camps with nowhere else to go.
          Now, with nowhere else to go, Um Bilal regrets ever leaving her home.
          "They can even keep carrying out airstrikes above our heads," she says, "I will accept it. Just let us be in our home. I swear to God I want nothing else, even with all the bombing, it's okay as long as we are in our home."
          "You look bothered by everything we are telling you," she says.
          I am, because no matter how many wars, how many tragedies, how many stories we cover we are not, and should not be, immune.
          But I am also in awe of people's ability to get up in the morning and just keep going.

          'Something worse than war'

          In a cold, bare, cement room housing widows and their families, we meet Halime al-Khatib and her four children, Hala, eight, six-year-old twins Alaa and Arif and little Ali, three-and-a-half.
          Al-Khatib's husband, a farmer, was killed seven months ago on his way to work.
          Ali is so young he probably won't remember his father's touch, but as his mother shows us a photograph of her husband, he reaches for it, and pulls it to his cheek before holding it against the blank grey wall, tenderly, as if he can create some warmth in this otherwise dank room with it.
          "Even now, we don't know if this is permanent," says Al-Khatib, wiping her tears through her niqab. "Maybe something worse than war will happen to us."
          Syrians recount escape from Aleppo
          syrian aleppo escape damon pkg_00004401

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          As we drive away, the sound of distant explosions shaking the nearby hills, my mind drifts back to June 2011 and the first time I made the quick trip across the Turkey-Syria border to speak to some of the earliest Syrians fleeing the violence.
          Families huddled under tarpaulins strung through trees, and the people we met thought they would be able to go home in a few days, a few weeks at most.
          More than five years on, Syria's civil war has seen cycle after cycle of tragedy and senseless killing, and no matter how "shocking" or "viral" the images to emerge from the bloodshed, it has hardly made a difference. But we have an obligation to keep telling the story, even if most of the time it feels as if no one is listening.