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Displaced people from Aleppo receive blankets and mattresses in al-Kamouneh camp in Idlib province, Syria December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

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By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The day he left the Damascus suburb of Daraya, Mohamad Abu Ammar took a photo in the graveyard to remember relatives he would be leaving behind, not knowing if he would ever return to his hometown.

"I packed a keepsake for each of my siblings and friends who were killed, to remember them," said Abu Ammar, an opposition activist who had worked on a town council in the rebel-run area. "We went to the graveyard to say goodbye."

He left Daraya by bus in August - when the town was surrendered to President Bashar al-Assad after years of government siege and bombardment - under a deal that gave civilians and fighters safe passage to the rebel-held province of Idlib in northwest Syria.

Syrians have poured into Idlib at an accelerating rate over the last year, forced to abandon their homes in other parts of western Syria that the government and its foreign military allies have recaptured from rebels.

Sheltering in camps or in the homes of friends and relatives, they are struggling to start over in dire conditions as Idlib becomes ever more crowded with people displaced from Damascus, Homs, and most recently Aleppo.

The latest to arrive are from eastern Aleppo, captured from rebels last month in Assad's most important gain of the war. Convoys shuttled more than 35,000 people - rebel fighters, their families, and civilians who fear Assad's rule, out of the city's last rebel-held pocket. Many of them went to Idlib.

For many, the initial relief of escaping siege was quickly replaced by the realisation they may never be able to go home.

Idlib is no safe haven. It remains the focus of fierce air strikes by the Syrian and Russian air forces. Some of the Islamist groups that hold sway there are not covered by a new nationwide ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey.

"The area has become overcrowded," said Ahmad al-Dbis, a medical aid worker in northern Syria. "It has displaced people from all over Syria, and it's lacking in services, whether it's medical, humanitarian, or housing."

Most people displaced from Aleppo spread out across camps and shelters or went to stay with relatives, al-Dbis said.

STARTING A NEW LIFE

"Everybody here is sympathetic to us, because most of them are displaced from other areas," said Hassan Kattan, 25, who was evacuated from Aleppo in December. He left behind a rebel enclave that had been besieged for several months, with large areas reduced to rubble by air strikes and artillery. But finding a new place to live was proving difficult, he said.

The U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) puts Idlib's population at around two million, including 700,000 internally displaced people. It is bordered to the northwest by Turkey, which has set up a new camp for the displaced in Idlib province.

Rebels captured most of the province at the height of their advances in western Syria in 2015. Jihadist groups including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, are powerful players there, eclipsing Free Syrian Army groups that also have a presence in the area.

Although Idlib is a secondary priority to the main population centres of western Syria - Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and the coast - the army and its allies will want to recover it sooner or later, raising the prospect of yet further displacement.

Abu Taleb, a medic who came to Idlib with his wife, in-laws, and baby daughter, recalls people weeping on the journey from Daraya aboard green state-owned buses that the government has provided for such evacuations.

"I came here, and it's like I started my life all over again," he told Reuters in an interview from the area, declining to give his full name. "Some people didn't want to go," he said. "But the siege was suffocating us, and we left out of fear."

Abu Taleb sought refuge in a camp for people uprooted by the war, amid more than 5,000 huts stretched out across the town of Atmeh, planted near the Syrian-Turkish border.

Thousands of tents also cover a hill in the town, near Abu Taleb's small flat, where he lives with his wife and 5-month-old daughter. "It's like a village here. It's better than the tents of course," he said.

"This camp section was empty when we first arrived. We were among the first to come to it," he added. "Now there are people from Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Moadamiya. People came from all over Syria."

RETURN HOME SEEN "IMPOSSIBLE"

Local aid groups provide water, bread on a daily basis, and sometimes clothes. But his area still had no electricity. "We use solar-powered batteries. The power runs for about an hour or two a day, so we charge the phones," he said.

The government has sought to conclude local agreements with rebels one area at a time, calling this a "workable model to bring security and peace" after nearly six years of war.

The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people since 2011 and made nearly 11 million Syrians homeless.

The opposition to Assad has however said the deals amount to a policy of forced displacement, or demographic changes aimed at shoring up Assad's rule.

The United Nations aid chief, Stephen O'Brien, voiced "extreme concern" over the Daraya evacuation at the time it went ahead. But since its conclusion, similar deals have been struck with rebel groups in other areas near Damascus.

The United Nations has also said the displaced should be allowed to "return voluntarily, in safety and in dignity".

Many of the displaced feel stranded in Idlib after leaving their close-knit communities, and they were soon hit by the painful reality that they may never return.

"When you have your own house, your own place to sleep, you have stability in it," said Kattan, who has been staying with a friend since he arrived from Aleppo. He hopes to send his pregnant wife to Turkey for her safety. "But right now, we have to start from scratch", he said.

While some people had managed to open small shops, find work, or rent apartments, many say they are far from settling in.

Tammam Abu al-Kheir, an opposition activist from Daraya who now lives in Idlib, said more people were flooding into the area than aid groups could handle. "Everybody did all they could. The people of Idlib opened up their homes," he added.

Months after arriving from Daraya, Abu Ammar is now trying to find a job. "We still haven't fully absorbed what happened," he said. Idlib relieved people from the siege, he said, "but it's still a war zone here."

"Emotionally, we all have hope that we will return home," Abu Ammar added. "But rationally, when I try to think about it, it seems impossible."

(Editing by Tom Perry and Dominic Evans)

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