Opposition governing bodies and humanitarian organizations in Hama province have resorted to digging caves underground to provide residents a measure of protection from Syrian and Russian airstrikes, which use advanced weaponry with highly destructive capabilities.
“Syrian regime warplanes have continuously bombed the city of Karfzeita north of Hama city for the past four years, causing 90 percent of the population to flee, and destroying all the city’s schools,” Minwar Mayuf, head of the Local Council in the city, told the Syrian Voice.
“They have also destroyed the city’s four bakeries, which forced us to dig underground and build a bakery to protect both customers and employees, and provide bread to those who remain.”
Since the Syrian regime started using its air force against opposition areas in 2012, Kafrzeita has been struck by more than 1,800 barrel bombs and 600 airstrikes, most of which have focused on essential facilities such as schools, hospitals and bakeries, according to statistics prepared by local human rights activists and obtained by the Syrian Voice.
Mohammed al-Abdullah, a Kafrzeita resident, was forced to dig a cave under his house to protect himself and his family from repeated bombardment.
“My work, and sense of belonging to this city have forced me to stay, despite the fact that our house was destroyed after being struck by a barrel bomb,” he told the Syrian Voice.
“At first, we moved around from house to house. As the regime increasingly targeted residential areas, I thought to build a cave under my house, so I called in a team that specializes in these things, that built me an underground room measuring 4 meters deep,” said al-Abdullah.
“It cost about SP 450 ($1.85) and we go down there when the bombing starts.”
“Since the bombing goes on and on, a safehouse has become a necessity, especially for women and children–my family’s presence in the safe house gives me some peace of mind.”
Safehouses and health issues
High levels of humidity in underground safe houses not only affect the walls and furniture, but also cause several illnesses including asthma and joint pain.
“Excessive humidity in closed-off safe houses causes several health issues as a result of a lack of oxygen, and high amounts of fungus, bacteria and insects,” Dr. Nazih al-Ghawi, head of the Medical Treatment Branch of the Hama Health Directorate, told the Syrian Voice.
“High humidity can lead to problems with the respiratory system, and can cause asthma, influenza, the common cold, and inflammation of the nerve tissue. This is to say nothing of its effects on children’s development.”
Medical problems resulting from living underground have become a local issue because so many residents resort to safe houses, said Dr. Ghawi.
Engineers and those with technical expertise have attempted to find solutions to excess humidity in the underground rooms. Often, they will dig a small, vertical shaft that connects the cave to the house’s roof, which helps bring in quantities of fresh air and sunlight. Some have also built ventilators to improve air flow, or installed insulation to reduce humidity.
Alternative housing for the needy
Constructing and maintaining safe houses costs money, and many poor residents cannot afford them. Some residents of the Hama countryside have found that ancient caves located on the edges of hills and valleys are an appropriate alternative.
Abu Saeed left the village of al-Hamamiyat in the Hama countryside after regime forces captured the area and turned it into a military base. After leaving, he outfitted a cave for his family’s use.
“After I was forced to leave my village, I lived as a displaced person on agricultural land for some time, until we were hit by a barrel bomb, which destroyed a good portion of the flock I owned,” he told the Syrian Voice.
“This pushed us to look for a place safe from the bombing. I found what I was searching for in the ancient caves, without having to take on the cost of digging or preparing anything, which saved me a lot of money and time.”
People have found relative safety in these underground structures. Safe houses remain the best solution available to those living in opposition areas, the lesser of two evils, which do not provide comprehensive protection but are better than being hit directly by a barrel bomb.