Ruth Sherlock

On a beach in Muscat, Oman's capital, families gather on a Friday evening to enjoy a brief respite from the scalding heat of this desert country's summer. Women fully clad in abayas splash amid the gentle waves with their children. Shrieks of laughter fill the warm air. Toddlers build sandcastles at the water's edge.

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In the northeastern Lebanese city of Arsal, near the Syrian border, young boys stand in the blistering June heat, swinging sledgehammers to knock down simple structures made of concrete breeze blocks. Some of the children are as young as 8 years old. They're helping the adults reduce the walls to rubble.

The structures they're demolishing are their own homes, in a camp that shelters 23 Syrian families.

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In an orchard in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Axel Hirschfeld, an activist with the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, carefully untangles the delicate wings of a young blue-gray bird from a poacher's net.

Behind him, two Lebanese police officers rip down swaths of illegal mesh, hung between pomegranate and apple trees by the orchard's owner to ensnare thousands of these birds.

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Felicia Perkins-Ferreira cried while recounting how her two young sons were taken by their father from home in Trinidad to live under the Islamic State in the Middle East.

She had a blanket stitched out of their school uniforms and other clothes for comfort. She became plagued by panic attacks and exhaustion. "Every time I fell asleep, I'd dream that my children were there beside me," she said. But they were gone. It was too much to bear. "So I just preferred not to sleep."

Updated at 3:25 p.m. ET.

Thousands of Syrian refugees have been forced from their tents in Lebanon, following days of bitter rain, snow and freezing temperatures. The winter storm, dubbed Norma by Lebanese meteorologists, has left refugees in dire need of emergency assistance, aid workers say.

The al-Hol refugee camp, in northeastern Syria near the border with Iraq, is overwhelmed with new arrivals. For years, the camp, run by Kurdish authorities with help from the United Nations and other international organizations, has housed thousands of Iraqi refugees. More recently, though, the camp has become home to large numbers of Syrians, fleeing towns where the U.S.-led coalition is fighting the last remnants of ISIS. Hundreds of thousands have become internally displaced, with many families forced to move multiple times.

Syria's army is grouping at the outskirts of Manbij, a hotly contested town near the Turkish border, in a move that is apparently coordinated with the pending withdrawal of Kurdish militants who have long held the city.

The news comes after initial media reports suggested that for the first time in six years, Syrian troops had taken control of the northern city. Manbij is occupied by both the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG and American troops.

In a classroom that's so cold you can see your own breath, five teenage girls, their hair covered by brightly patterned scarves, and two boys read English phrases from textbooks. Repeating after their teacher, they say, "It has plants from all over the world."

The lesson, about an indoor rainforest in the United Kingdom, is a world away from the devastation surrounding them. They are students in Raqqa, Syria, a city that ISIS once claimed as its capital.

The green landscape of rural northeastern Syria is home to wild ducks and donkeys, villagers tending cattle — and U.S. military bases housing 2,200 troops. American soldiers patrol the countryside in armored vehicles and hover overhead in Black Hawk helicopters. In the Kurdish-majority area known as Rojava, towns are bursting with Christmas decorations. Holiday lights adorn almost every main street in the city of Qamishli, whose diverse population includes many Christians, and shops are selling tinsel and plastic trees.

Um Mohammed says she was in search of a happier life when she decided to bring her family from the Netherlands to live under ISIS.

"I thought the ISIS 'caliphate' would be perfect, like a utopia," says Um Mohammed, who describes having felt discriminated against as a Muslim in the Netherlands and says the militant group's online propaganda drew her in. "I don't think [life in the caliphate] was what most people expected. I regret going and having, you know, to go through this."

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of dead bodies.

On a busy street corner in Raqqa, Syria, a digger pushes through the rubble of a building hit by an airstrike. Onlookers shield their mouths and noses from the dust and stench of corpses of those who perished beneath.

Just streets away, three recovery workers pull out the delicate skeletons of two children from under the debris of a partially collapsed home. And across the city, in what was once Raqqa's public park, men unearth more bodies from a mass grave.

The Syrian city of Raqqa is blanketed in despair. Residents survive in a wasteland of war-warped buildings and shattered concrete. They sleep exposed to the elements in homes with blown-out walls.

In the desert scrubland of Morocco's Tangier region, a donkey laden with water bottles trots down a pebble lane chased by two small children. A farmer herds his cows in the near distance. Crickets leap in the dry grass.

It's within these gently undulating hills, just inland from the coast, that China plans to build an entire city that will stand in monument to its expansion into a North African nation on Europe's doorstep.

The leaders of Russia and Turkey announced a plan Monday to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria's Idlib province, in an effort to avert a looming military offensive that aid groups say would have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

In long talks in the Russian city of Sochi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to create a buffer area between Syria's rebels and pro-government militias by Oct. 15.

In her simple home in a settlement in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, next to tents sheltering other refugees from the war in Syria, Raja talks about the time when two young German men arrived at her door several months ago. They told her they were researchers for a charity.

"They seemed fine," Raja says. "They just wanted to come in and film the house. We said, 'We have nothing to hide.' They filmed everything, even the kitchen."

Raja, who is afraid to give her full name, says she wouldn't have let the men in if she'd known how the footage would be used.

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Hundreds of Syrian rescue workers from the United States-backed White Helmets group have been evacuated through Israel into Jordan, escaping an onslaught by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad on one of the last opposition strongholds in the country.

Hala hugged her 10-month-old baby close as she sat in the front seat of the pickup truck piled with the family's few possessions — thin mattresses, blankets, a small suitcase — as she waited to cross into Syria.

She had dressed neatly for the journey, in a carefully pinned maroon headscarf and black abaya gown. She tried to think of the positives: Her family would no longer be strangers in a foreign land; her children would set foot in their home country for the first time.

But as her convoy began to move toward the Syrian border, her nerve wavered.

Seema heard the children on the upper floors of the house scream "chlorine, chlorine!" Amina says she felt gas hit her lungs. Abu Faisal found himself caught in a yellow-tinged cloud.

These are just some of the testimonies collected by NPR from now former residents of Douma, a town outside the Syrian capital Damascus, who say that on the night of April 7, they endured the terrifying experience of a chemical weapons attack.

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In Syria, government forces have nearly retaken rebel-held eastern Ghouta near the capital of Damascus. It's been under bombardment by Syria and Russia for weeks. One by one now, rebel groups are making deals to leave. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

Dressed in a sharp black suit, Syrian President Bashar Assad smiles for selfies with his soldiers against a backdrop of blown-out buildings and a battered tank. Weary-looking men crowd around him and chant the slogan frequently heard on this side of the country's war: "With our souls and blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar!"

This week, pro-regime media posted photos and videos of Assad visiting what they claimed was a town regime forces had recently captured in eastern Ghouta, an area east of the capital Damascus.

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