Bombed back into the Stone Age: North Hama residents pay to live underground

AMMAN: Six meters down a narrow, earthen stairwell, Ibrahim al-Jawdi and his family gather together for dinner in an underground bomb shelter.

The space is dimly lit. The old, refashioned motorcycle battery in the corner gives off a weak glow, but several layers of dirt and bedrock prevent any natural light from entering.

There are three air vents for circulation, each only a few inches in diameter. Even then, the air is thick and stale. During these summer months, the humidity is stifling. Ibrahim’s five-year-old daughter now suffers from acute bronchitis.

Ibrahim carved this makeshift shelter of stone—18 square meters in total—into the north Hama countryside for his wife and four children a few months ago. He asked that its exact location not be disclosed. The warplanes fly overhead, threatening to strike at any moment.

Ignoring the surrealism of the situation, the shelter almost feels like home. It bears all of the conventional trappings: a living room where the family both eats and sleeps, a modestly stocked kitchen and even a bathroom with a functioning sewage system.

During the day, Ibrahim works with the Hama Civil Defense as a first responder in the aftermath of Russian and regime airstrikes. His wife—a teacher before the war—gathers the town’s children in the bunker for ad hoc reading and writing classes, their only hope to avoid growing up illiterate.

 Entrance to Ibrahim al-Jawdi’s underground home. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim al-Jawdi.

In the face of ongoing aerial bombardment, thousands of north Hama residents are refusing to flee their land, instead opting for a subterranean emigration by converting short-term bomb shelters into fully equipped homes.

Since 2014, north Hama has been hit hard. In the fall of 2015, Russian planes joined in the near-daily airstrikes across rebel-held countryside.

The hilly north Hama countryside is frontline territory, separating rebel-controlled Idlib province from the regime-held Hama heartland.

Since 2014, fighting over this buffer territory has displaced large swaths of the region’s population. “The once populous [north Hama] towns of Kafrzaita, al-Latamna, Kafnabuda and Morek are now nearly empty of inhabitants,” Syria Direct’s partner website, the Syrian Voice, reported last month.

In the town of Kafrzaita alone, the Assad regime has reportedly dropped more than 1,800 barrel bombs and 600 airstrikes since 2012, targeting “essential facilities such as schools, hospitals and bakeries,” according to the Syrian Voice.

Tens of thousands of north Hama residents fled the countryside, seeking shelter in neighboring Idlib and Aleppo provinces or turning towards the Turkish border. Ibrahim was among those to initially leave.

 Building a north Hama underground home. Photo courtesy of the Syrian Voice.

However, in June of this year, Syrian and Russian forces began an intensified air campaign against the rebel Victory Army across Idlib province, in the process destroying schoolsmosques, Civil Defense centers and hospitals, prompting hundreds of thousands of residents to disperse again.

From 2014 to 2016, Ibrahim and his family repeated an unsettlingly familiar routine of relocation and displacement more than half a dozen times. Before returning to their hometown in north Hama in early 2016, the family sought out safety as far north as Aleppo and as far west as the Turkish border, which has closed its doors to asylum seekers.

For those like Ibrahim who resolved to return home—convinced that it was preferable to die on one’s own land than to live life on the run—remaining aboveground in north Hama was no longer a viable option. Since June, hundreds of north Hama families have hired professional construction teams to build bunkers in the shadow of their former homes, now in higher demand than ever before.

“I’ve been building bomb shelters [in north Hama] over the past two years,” Mohammed al-Ahmed, the head of a Hama construction company, told Syria Direct. “However, I’ve noticed a particular spike [since the intensified airstrikes beginning in June] with so many people returning to north Hama from Idlib province,” he added.

Al-Ahmed has built around 70 shelters over the past two years, including 13 in the past month alone. “This is the highest demand ever for a single month,” he told Syria Direct.

Construction companies use heavy equipment and machinery to cut into the distinctive, pitching hills and valleys that typify the northern countryside terrain.

“The shelters reach more 10 meters underground,” Fayad a-Satuf a citizen journalist from the north Hama town of al-Latamna—one of the first targets of the Russian intervention that began last September—told Syria Direct.

At first, families used the bunkers as temporary shelters during bombing runs. However, amidst a faster pace of airstrikes, north Hama residents began using the shelters as full-time homes.

“This evolution happened because the bombings now happen year-round,” Mahmoud, another Hama-based construction worker whose company has built around 150 underground shelters, told Syria Direct. “Especially with the Russian warplanes in the air, these shelters are now permanent homes because a surprise bombing can happen at any moment.”

Today, bakeries, rebel headquarters “and even the largest hospital in the area are establishing permanent centers underneath one of the many foothills.”

With kitchens, living rooms, electricity and plumbing—all underground—“families never even have to leave the comfort of the shelter,” said citizen journalist Fayad a-Satuf.

“These shelters resemble the homes that have been destroyed aboveground in so many ways,” Mahmoud said.

‘For the chance to live in this hole’

When Ibrahim al-Jawdi and his family ultimately returned to Hama, there was little more “than ashes where [their] house once stood.”

“Even the trees that once lined the home had been burned to the ground,” he said.

Al-Jawdi decided to rebuild, hiring a construction company to build down rather than up.

“I pawned my motorcycle. My wife sold her jewelry…and together we spent SP1.1 million (approx. $5,120),” Ibrahim told Syria Direct. “And why? For the chance to live in this hole in the ground.”

“Securing that money was certainly not easy,” he added, “but there is absolutely nothing that I will put before the safety of my children.”

Building an underground shelter isn’t cheap. In fact, al-Ahmed, the head of the north Hama construction company, estimates that each shelter typically ranges in cost from SP900,000 to SP 1,000,000 (appox. $4,190 to $4,650).

“There’s no denying that building an underground shelter will cost more than building an aboveground home,” said Mohammed al-Ahmed. “That said, even people whose homes are still intact are choosing to move their families underground where they simply feel more safe.”

Prices primarily vary based on the construction materials that line and support the shelter.

At the higher price point, construction companies will build the walls of the shelter out of reinforced concrete and iron, allowing for greater stability.

At the lower price point, construction companies will build the walls out of cement; however, “given how cash-strapped people are these days, sometimes it’s just not possible to purchase the first option,” al-Ahmed said.   

Some families cannot afford either of these options. Their only choice in the event of an airstrike is to find shelter in a cave.

“Living in a makeshift cave dwelling can be very dangerous,” said Ibrahim al-Jawdi. “They’re unstable and prone to collapse at any moment.”

“I’ve seen bombs collapse such shelters with families still inside. There was one time when a mother and her three children never made it out,” he added.

Even for those with moderate financial means, the sunless shelters can be bug-ridden and pose legitimate health concerns.

While newly constructed shelters frequently come outfitted with four, large air vents for circulation, the first shelters built in the north Hama countryside would only have one small vent.

“The first week that we were down in that shelter, my whole family got bronchitis,” al-Jawdi told Syria Direct. With so little circulation, “the humidity down there can be stifling, and you’ll almost certainly have some shortness of breath.”

“Even to this day, my little girl suffers from acute bronchitis,” he added.

“What has she done to deserve this? What have any of these children ever done?”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.