Under bombardment: residents of Idlib recall horror of Syrian regime assault

Damascus has been intensifying its airstrikes in Syria’s northwest as ground operations falter

Members of the Syrian civil defence, known as the White Helmets, pull out an injured but alive child from under the rubble following a Russian air strike on Maaret al-Numan in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on July 22, 2019 in the latest violence to plague the opposition bastion, as the Damascus regime and its Russian ally have stepped up their deadly bombardment of Idlib since late April. Sixteen civilians were among 19 people killed and at least 45 others were wounded in the air raid that hit "a wholesale vegetable market in the town of Maaret al-Numan", according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The death toll could still rise as many of those wounded are in a critical condition and some people are still trapped under rubble, the Britain-based monitor said.
 / AFP / Abdulaziz KETAZ

Over the past two years, 24-year old Samera has started to hear the noise of jets and explosions more and more often.

It started, she said, after she survived a barrel bomb attack on a public market in the north-west Syrian town of Jisr Al Shughour near the Lebanese border.

“Ever since, my nerves and reaction to aerial bombing have become a nightmare. Sometimes I cannot sleep and stay awake fearing sudden bombing,” she said, bursting into tears.

With her family, Samera fled to Idlib and settled in Maarat Al Numan.

Then on Monday, she was again nearly killed from the air.

War crimes continue to occur as we speak, and will carry on

"Out of the blue, I could barely open my eyes, coughing up blood. I felt conscious but unconscious at the same time, everyone here expects the rockets to pay them a visit, but [yesterday] they did to us…," she told The National. Despite the devastation, Samera and her children survived.

In the last week, the regime bombardments of Maarat Al Numan have been intense and she says her family have been sheltering indoors, reading the Quran and praying they aren’t hit.

Then the shells started to land all around.

The area 400 metres behind their house is mostly gone. “Our neighbours are mostly dead now or buried,” she says.

At least 40 people were killed on Monday when regime air strikes hit the town’s popular market and the surrounding homes – including Samera’s.

When her husband rushed back to check on the family, they pulled already packed bags from the rubble and left, searching for somewhere safer.

They are now just one family out of thousands looking for shelter in north-west Syria’s Idlib province, fleeing an intensifying regime offensive on the last major rebel bastion in the country.

Idlib, home to an estimated 3 million civilians, is becoming a humanitarian disaster.

Moscow and Damascus have been trying the wear down the defences and resolve of the rebels with weeks of bombardment. The rebel groups, mostly from hardline factions, have repelled ground assault after ground assault.

In the middle, more than 650 civilians have been killed, some 300,000 have been forced to flee their homes and two dozen health facilities have been damaged or knocked out of service.

Mohammad Hallaj, the director of a local humanitarian NGO called Response Coordination Group, said that this is now the 24th week in a row that the Idlib region has come under fire. He said that 43 civilians have been killed in the last week. A total of 64 were killed on Monday, 40 in Monday’s bombardment of Maarat Al Numan.

“The situation is catastrophic, …people live under harrowing bombardment,” Mr Hallaj said.

“War crimes continue to occur as we speak, and will carry on,” he said.

Moscow denies being involved in Monday’s air strikes, calling the reports that their jets were involved “fake news”.

Khaled Al Asarmda, 31, had just left his house in the nearby town of Saraqib to buy food for his mother, father and brother.

While he was walking to the shop, two air strikes hit an area close by. He hid in a building entrance and when he turned back he realised the smoke was coming from near where he lived.

He rushed home but suddenly didn’t recognise his neighbourhood among the devastation.

"I started screaming and saw at the end [of the row] my home, my mother was crying and so was my brother… 'He died,' she was sobbing," Khaled told The National.

It took all night for him to arrange the burial of his father because holding a funeral in the village’s cemetery is dangerous under the air strikes.

“One day, Russia and the regime will be judged for this. If not here on this earth, it will be on judgment day in front of God,” Khaled said.

Ahmad Rahal, a former colonel in the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) now based in Istanbul, said that the regime and its backers in Moscow are getting frustrated at the lack of progress on the ground and so the indiscriminate bombing is getting worse.

“The regime-Russian ground forces utterly failed to advance or maintain their military gains along the vital roads and towns around the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway,” he said. Therefore, he added, they carry out “more attacks to pressure the rebels to lay down or they’ll kill more civilians.”

Mr Rahal says he believes the strong defence of the armed factions in Idlib that has so far bogged down the offensive will ultimately force Russia to convene new talks to end the offensive.

However, he warned that previous talks were often coupled with an increase in hostilities on the ground as parties tried to impose a reality on negotiations.