Maram is pretty little 4-year-old with big brown eyes and a smile that could melt hardest heart.
She should be out playing in the sunshine. Happy and carefree, as any four-year-old should be.
But here she lies, unable to move, in an old schoolhouse converted into a makeshift hospital in this war-torn land .
Maram is far too young to understand why she’s here. All she knows is she was playing with her dolls one minute and screaming in pain the next after a bomb from Bashar Assad’s jets flattened her house, injuring her spine.
She has no feeling in her legs. She will probably never run around in the sunshine again.
But Maram is an inspiration to her fellow wounded, the Free Syrian Army fighters who lovingly play with her and other little victims each day in the hospital run by a French charity.
And for men like Mustapha Al Khalid, she’s a reason to fight on.
Once he was an estate agent, now he’s an FSA commander here in Idlib, north west Syria, near the Turkish border. It is a city that, like Homs, has borne the brunt of the dictator’s wrath for 18 months.
Mustapha left his wife and three children behind to help cut supplies to Assad’s army. His left arm has been shattered by a mortar.
“It is a strange feeling missing people I love. But after witnessing the killing by Assad’s forces I had to fight for freedom.” he says.
A wounded fighter next to him picks Maran up to comfort her. I ask if he’s a relative. “In Syria, we are all family,” he replies.
We are joined by Malik, a bewildered 10-year-old boy in a wheelchair. His left leg has been amputated from the hip.
Mustapha explains there are hundreds of thousands of refugees crowding into towns like this close to the Turkish border.
They calculate Assad will not send his planes in for fear of provoking the Turks. “We have put families up in schools and public buildings,” says Mustapha. “But people who have just arrived have to sleep outside because we have nowhere left to put them. We can provide one meal a day After that the family has to fend for itself.”
They rely on scant supplies smuggled over the border from Turkey. Crops lie unharvested as Assad’s snipers keep farmers from their fields. Grain depots have been destroyed to stop them falling into rebel hands. Children weak with hunger are most at risk of disease. New arrival Abu Abdul says: “There are no medicines to treat ailments so minor complaints become serious.”
Meanwhile, only 22 miles away in Harem, rebels clash with Assad forces. I ask the fighters if they wish they had never embarked on their revolution. “No! No!” they cry. “We can’t go back. If we stop all of us will die.” The fighters all give a defiant Victory V sign. Maram stirs on her bed… and copies their salute. All eyes in the room look at her. And Mustapha’s fill with tears.
– Ex-Coronation Street actor Nigel Pivaro, now a freelance journalist, this week paid tribute at the funeral of his on-screen father Bill Tarmey in Ashton-under-Lyne, Manchester. Bill, 71, who played Jack Duckworth for 31 years, died this month in Tenerife.