A shackled life for free men in Syria's bombarded north
BEIRUT - Its south is a volatile frontline, its northern border an open-air encampment for the displaced and its centre a teeming urban jungle.
Syria's jihadist-controlled region of Idlib is home to some three million people who have been variously affected by a surge in regime attacks since April.
When the evening call to prayer rings out in the embattled town of Kafranbel, streets are empty, and house curtains are drawn.
"It looks like a desert lit only by moonlight," said Mohammad al-Sheikh, a 28-year-old activist.
"No one dares to go out."
Located in Idlib's southern countryside, Kafranbel was not always a "ghost town", the activist said from Kafranbel.
Only five months ago, its largest football field was flanked with hundreds of bustling fans during a local tournament, their loud cheers rising above the pitch.
But it's residents have largely avoided open skies since the latest flare-up hit markets, hospitals, water wells, schools and bakeries over the past two months.
The violence has forced most of Kafranbel's 20,000 inhabitants to flee, while trapping those who remain in bunkers and homes, he added.
The activist said he no longer goes to the mosque, fearing regime air strikes during prayers.
Like most residents, he also avoids shopping at open-air markets because he believes they are especially vulnerable to attacks.
"You become a prisoner in your own house," he said.
"It's a prison, but for free men."
Idlib -- designated a demilitarised zone in September under an agreement between Russia and Turkey -- has come under increased bombardment by the regime and its Russian ally since former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) seized most of the province at the start of the year.
Violence spiked in April, leaving more than 490 civilians dead, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The flare-up has also displaced 330,000 others, the United Nations says, sparking fears of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the eight-year conflict.
In northern Idlib, near the border with Turkey, olive groves and broad rocky plains have become a safe haven for thousands of families fleeing violence.
Abdul Monem al-Shamaa lives under a tarpaulin-covered tree, along with his wife, five children, and two parents.
His family fled the Idlib village of Maaret Horma in May and just this month, his wife gave birth to their fifth child under a silvery green tree, he said.
While the area is safe from regime bombardment, it is not ideal for family life.
"There is nothing here but trees and arid land," said the 37-year-old.
He spends most of his time foraging for food, trekking at least five kilometres (three miles) daily to collect handouts from NGOs and local councils, he said.
When his search turns up empty, he has to resort to the only funds he has stored away: a modest $18.
"Everything has changed," Shamaa said from northern Idlib.
"I used to live in a house, that is now destroyed," he said.
"I used to sleep and my children's bellies would be full, but now, there is little sleep and a lot of hunger."
The situation is starkly different near Idlib province's eponymous capital.
Barring sporadic air strikes on the edges of the city, the HTS stronghold has been largely spared heightened attacks, which would have sent tens of thousands of people fleeing towards neighbouring Turkey.
In the town of Binnish, less than 10 kilometres away from Idlib city, "the markets are bustling, the people are out on the streets and in restaurants," said Khayriya Ninal, a 22-year-old teacher.
It is even more crowded now after thousands of displaced people moved closer to the capital in recent weeks fleeing the violence, she said.
"People abroad think that bombardment means that life stops," said Ninal.
"Sometimes it is like this, but people also tend to resume their lives in a strangely quick way," she said from Binnish.
She gave the example of her house which was hit by an air strike last year, only a few days before the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holidays.
"We celebrated anyway when Eid arrived," she said.
Even now, in light of heightened attacks on the region, she said she is busy planning her brother's wedding next month.
"Life goes on," Ninal said.
But the shadow of a feared government assault looms large.
"We keep trying to rush the wedding so that it can happen before violence spills into my area."