BEIRUT – When pro-government forces retook her hometown from Syrian rebels, Nisrine accepted the same surrender deal the government has offered tens of thousands of Syrians: a one-way bus trip to a place she had never been — the northern rebel-held province of Idlib.
Since Syria's war began, the population of Idlib has doubled as it has taken in a motley mix of fleeing civilians, defeated rebels, hard-line jihadis and those like Nisrine who have packed up their families to ride the government surrender bus.
But as government forces wrap up a blistering campaign in eastern Ghouta, Idlib is likely to be the next target. And this time, there will be nowhere else to run.
"Maybe this is the last chapter of the revolution," Nisrine, 36, an Arabic teacher from the onetime tourist resort of Madaya, said in an online interview. "Syrians are killing Syrians. Nothing matters anymore. We decided to die standing up. I'm sad for the revolution, how it's gone, how people called for freedom and now it's gone."
Idlib, a small, conservative province on the Turkish border, is Syria's largest remaining rebel-held area. One of the earliest regions to revolt against President Bashar Assad, it may be the place where the revolution that began more than seven years ago finally ends.
The government has carried out scorched-earth airstrikes there with its ally, Russia, routinely hitting hospitals and clinics, schools and neighborhood markets.
But people are still coming.
In recent days, more than 10,000 fighters and civilians have been bused to Idlib from surrendering sections of eastern Ghouta. They arrive traumatized, exhausted and disillusioned, often with children suffering from malnutrition after years of siege.
The government has treated the province as a dumping ground for those it does not want in its territory and paints the province as a nest of jihadis. But the vast majority in Idlib are civilians, including nonviolent activists who could face arrest and torture if they remained in government areas and who often push back against hard-liners in the province they believe have co-opted the revolt.
Marwan Habaq, who survived the barrages in eastern Ghouta in a basement with his wife and infant daughter, Yasmina, is taking them to Idlib. It is a tough choice because, as they have no place to live in Idlib, they will have to leave his wife's parents behind and they will face more shelling. But if they stay, he is sure he will be arrested or forced into military service. "Two bitter options," he said. "Leaving to the unknown, or staying within Assad's hands."
But the move only delays the inevitable.
"It's a shame on the world," said Mehran Ouyoun, a member of the opposition council in exile, which meets in Turkey. "If you approve the war crime of forced evacuation, at least make sure these people don't suffer again and again."
Idlib was once controlled by a patchwork of clashing insurgents, some led by U.S.-backed army defectors calling for a civil state. Others, including an al-Qaida affiliate, welcomed foreign fighters and espoused a spectrum of Islamist ideologies. But hard-liners have seized the upper hand, playing into the government's portrayal of the region even as they create tensions with residents who oppose them.
As they struggle to survive, many residents are caught between government attacks from the sky and the overbearing rule of extremist factions that dominate on the ground.
Nisrine joined the revolution at the outset in 2011, pushing for a secular civil democracy. Like a dozen other Idlib residents interviewed for this article by phone and e-mail, she asked not to be fully identified for fear of retribution from any side.
She boarded a bus for Idlib last year after surviving a year of siege and bombardment, hoping that her son Abdullah, 10, would not starve to death like some children in her town, Madaya. At first, she was excited to be reunited with her husband, a former law student and rebel fighter who had gone to Idlib two years earlier.
She did not regret leaving Madaya. After the government takeover there, her brother and brothers-in-law were drafted and sent to the front with minimal training. They died in battle.
But Nisrine was troubled by Idlib City's ubiquitous jihadi billboards, face veils and cafes segregating women and banning them from smoking water pipes. When she wears her usual headscarf and modest coat, religious enforcers lecture her for not veiling her face.
The episode that shocked Nisrine most was the day her son, after a few months playing with other children in Idlib, announced: "I want to join the jihad."
Horrified, Nisrine decided to set up educational alternatives and start campaigning quietly against the recruitment of children into hard-line religious schools and rebel factions.
She also helped open a chapter of Dameh, Arabic for hug, an organization that provides psychological support and cultural activities.
Umm Abdo, 36, a philosophy professor from Syria's largest city, Aleppo, takes a more confrontational approach. She fled to Idlib in 2014 for fear she would be arrested after government forces detained her husband. "I don't stay silent," she said. "I'm not afraid of death. Welcome, death!"
She said she does not leave home without a gun. "When we decided to revolt, it was against oppression," she said. "But today we're facing the worst oppression."