TABQA, Syria: The war-ravaged homes are littered with mines and lack running water or even doors, but they are the only option for some Syrians escaping even worse conditions under the Islamic State group.
Tens of thousands have fled the battle to oust the jihadists from their de facto Syrian capital Raqa, with some seeking refuge in the town of Tabqa 50 kilometres (30 miles) further west.
US-backed fighters seized Tabqa from IS in May in a fierce assault that left much of it in ruins, with smashed rooftops sloping into mountains of rubble lining the filthy streets.
The devastated neighbourhoods appear uninhabitable, but they form the only shelter that the most destitute escapees from Raqa can access.
Anwar al-Khalaf heaved a shovel over his head, clearing debris blocking access to the bathroom and bedrooms in an abandoned apartment in Tabqa.
“If we weren’t this desperate, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have cleaned this apartment. But there’s no other place for us,” he said.
The 45-year-old labourer fled Raqa four months ago, just before the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces broke into the IS stronghold.
He and his five children spent months in displacement camps and even sleeping in the open air before making it to Tabqa this week.
Dozens of camps for the displaced have sprung up to accommodate those fleeing the battle against IS, but international aid groups have decried conditions in them as “terrible.”
In many, arrivals have access to neither mattresses nor tents, and water and food remain scarce.
Looking out over the destroyed neighbourhood on the banks of the Euphrates River, Khalaf expressed fear he could be kicked out of his hellish new home.
“If the landlord comes back, I don’t know what I’ll do. My kids and I will be forced out into the street,” he said.
‘Everything here is destroyed’
According to Hadi al-Zaher, who heads the local neighbourhood council, more than 1,000 families have moved into the heavily damaged district.
“This neighbourhood doesn’t have the basic living requirements — water, food, mattresses, health care. We haven’t gotten any positive response from (relief) organisations,” Zaher told AFP. Displaced families were streaming in daily from other IS-held areas rocked by clashes and bombardment, including Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, he said.
This week, scrawny children could be seen scrambling atop rubble to find something to play with, brushing past shards of glass and twisted metal.
Two youngsters peered out from a drab balcony at the street below. The veranda just two buildings over was reduced to a limp tangle of concrete blocks hanging off the wall.
In a two-story building, the walls around the flight of stairs were blown off completely, leaving the steps dangerously exposed.
They were almost fatal for one 75-year-old woman.
“She was coming down from the second floor to go to the bathroom, and she fell right here,” said her son Faraj, pointing to the blood-stained landing between the two floors.
A sheet of corrugated metal had been fastened to part of the landing, forming the only railing.
“If it weren’t for this, she would have fallen all the way to the ground below,” but she still suffered severe wounds to her hand and face, said Faraj, who also fled Raqa.
The 40-year-old has short-cropped, greying hair and walks through the rubble wearing only a pair of sandals.
“My god, we’re so exhausted. We came here thinking there would be water, but we regret it now because everything here is destroyed,” he said.
He feared that the roof would collapse at any moment on his mother and young children.
‘Nowhere else to go’
To add insult to injury, Faraj is being forced to pay rent to the landlord, who lives nearby.
“We don’t have anything, but the owner of this house wants 25,000 Syrian pounds ($50) for these ruins,” he said.
“People are sleeping in the streets and fighting over who lives in wreckage like this.”
Even middle-aged Hiba al-Saleh was paying $100 a month for the damaged apartment where she lives with her bedridden husband, whose severe blood clots have left him unable to breathe and unconscious most of the day.
They fled Raqa about 10 weeks ago because they had run out of food and water, and the state hospital in the city, where her husband was being treated, was out of medicine.
“We escaped Raqa from the river, carrying my husband on a stretcher. It was hard to get him out with the bombing overhead,” she told AFP.
“Life here is very hard but we have nowhere else to go.”
Her gaunt, motionless husband is hooked up to machines to help him breathe, which run on batteries because there is no electricity in the bare home.
“Our circumstances are miserable and no one is helping us with my husband’s treatment,” said Saleh, but “the situation here is still better than what we saw in Raqa.”
As the sun set on Tabqa, young women in colourful robes hung wet towels and children’s clothes on laundry lines — a sliver of normality in the otherwise ruined landscape.
An elderly woman looked out from a bullet-riddled apartment.
“Life is tough in this neighbourhood. Behind every window is a painful story,” she remarked, before shutting her window.