DOUMA, Syria — It is hard to keep a business open when your town is being besieged, but Yassin Koubbieh managed to do it.
The five-year government blockade of Douma meant there was hardly anything to sell in his corner store.
When fighting broke out among the different rebel factions, or government jets dropped bombs, his whole family fled to the basement.
“We suffered — no food, no security, no safety,” Koubbieh told NBC News during a visit to recaptured Douma accompanied by a Syrian army press officer. Comments interpreted by an employee of the Information Ministry were reviewed by NBC News translators.
The battle for Douma ended in the spring after an intense government bombing campaign that the U.N. says killed 1,700 people.
While Assad has publicly called for reconciliation and vowed to target only “terrorists” in Idlib, some aid groups fear a massacre is looming.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!
And Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., on Monday tweeted that "all eyes" were watching "the actions of Assad, Russia, and Iran in Idlib."
Turkey, which has backed some rebel groups, is trying to avert an attack by Syrian forces.
"What I fear is that Idlib could be the battle like no other battle," said Jan Egeland, special adviser to the U.N. special envoy for Syria. "There are 100 armed opposition groups ... several of them have been labeled terrorists,” he said. “But 10 times more babies [are] in the same place."
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates more than a million children are at risk in the event of a government assault and has drawn up contingency plans to provide clean water and nutritional supplies.
Egeland is pushing for negotiations to stop the expected offensive.
“This war has to end in talks in Idlib, not in a bloodbath," he said.
But some on the streets of Douma are demanding retribution.
For his part, Youssef Kareem, 21, whose family owns a spice store in Douma’s bazaar, says he hopes rebels will be punished for the pain they have caused his family.
"We suffered," Kareem said, repeating an often-heard refrain as he stood among brightly colored piles of paprika, sumac and cumin. "They were looting the shops, that's why they were fighting each other, for the money and the goods."