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Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Rescue workers in Idlib pushed to breaking point by regime bombing

Idlib has been subject to horrendous bombing [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 December, 2019

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Schools, homes and hospitals in Idlib have been targeted again by the Syrian regime this week.
In a video shared on social media this week, a White Helmets team is called to a home in the Idlib countryside, recently levelled by barrel bombing and shelling. The rescue workers begin to dig until they finally reach a family trapped under the rubble of their own collapsed home. 

As they extract the last of the dust-shrouded children, the White Helmets cameraman takes a minute to collect himself, knowing that the family has been saved. Emotionally shattered, he falls to the ground and weeps. 

Heart-breaking videos such as these have filled Syrian social media this week as Idlib was subject to another series of bombing, leaving at least 21 people killed on Saturday alone.

In another video shared by activists, a child, her face covered in blood, sits in a doorway having survived an airstrike. She cries out, still in shock, "is my father alive?".

Activists say that her father and grandmother died in the air strike in Maarat Al-Numan - a northern Idlib town that has been subject to horrific bombing this week.

It left another family in northwestern Syria without a main breadwinner - an uncertain and dangerous future ahead of them, and with no place to go with Idlib under siege.

The White Helmets have worked tirelessly in Idlib this week, as the province was pummelled again-and-again by Russian missiles, and regime shelling and barrel bombs. 

Among the targets have been schools, homes, and vegetable markets, with the south of the province subject to particularly harsh bombardments from the air and ground.

Rescue workers targeted

Since 31 August, 772 people have been killed in air strikes and shelling, including scores of children. The increased use of crude barrel bombs by the regime this week has made it a particularly deadly one for civilians - and those attempting to rescue them.

During the war, 273 White Helmets' workers having been killed in the call of duty, many of them in "double tap strikes", struck as they attempted to rescue civilians from bombed-out buildings. 

This week, two more rescue workers from the Syrian civil defence team - Mohammed Deeb Al-Hir and Fares Mohammed Ali - were killed as they attempted to rescue families trapped in rubble in Idlib. 

"Since the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian government and its allies have blatantly violated international humanitarian law to break the will of the people by targeting civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities," Lobna Hassairi from SAMS told The New Arab, an organisation that supports 34 medical facilities across northwest Syria.

Also hit this week was Radio Fresh, the voice of progressive activism in Idlib province, whose workers have not only been targeted by the Assad regime but also extremists.

Among the targets have been schools, homes, and vegetable markets


The station's founder Raed Fares was assassinated by suspected jihadi gunmen two-years-ago, but this time the Free Syria media channel was targeted equally anonymously from the air, likely by Russia.

Exodus

The bombing has not only resulted in scores injured and dead, but has also uprooted tens of thousands of more civilians. 

Mohammed Halaj, director of Syria's Response Coordination Group, told Anadolu that 25,000 civilians have been forced from their homes in Idlib over the past week due to the bombing.

"Around 425,000 civilians are living in Maarat al-Numan, Saraqib and Ariha districts and rural areas. If the attacks target these places with the same violence, the number of displaced will rise more," he told the Turkish news agency.

Combined with targeted strikes on hospitals and clinics, the latest humanitarian crisis has pushed medical services in Idlib to breaking point, SAMS warned.

"The recent escalation… has generated the largest wave of displacement in the country since the beginning of the conflict," Hassairi said, referring to the latest offensive on Idlib, which has been largely ongoing since April.

"Our team have reported an increase in infectious diseases and malnutrition among displaced children due to a lack of access to care in IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camps and hard to reach areas."

The SAMS spokesperson said that the worsening winter conditions has put Idlib's half-a-million refugees, particularly children - who often live in orchards or fields - at increased risk of diseases and infections.

There are at least four million people trapped in Idlib province who live under almost daily bombardment. A large-scale ground offensive by the regime could likely lead to the collapse in medical services in the south - a deliberate tactic employed by the regime and Russia before.

Since 26 April, SAMS has reported 67 attacks on 47 health facilities in northwestern Syria, including 24 medical centres that are supported by the organisation. 

Saraqeb Primary Healthcare Centre had to suspend services twice this week due to nearby airstrikes, with one explosion happening just 100 metres away from the facility.

"Luckily, in these two incidents, none of our staff and patients were injured," the spokesperson said.

Hospitals targeted

In other cases, hospitals appear to have been directly targeted, particularly when the coordinates of medical centres were shared with the Russians, who are leading the air assault on Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces.

Qah Hospital was destroyed last month, when regime ballistic missiles struck the facility, along with a nearby refugee camp, killing at least 24 people.

Residents in some urban areas in Idlib have complained that medical services in southern towns have been suspended when punitive airstrikes forced doctors and nurses to move operations to more remote areas.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian government and its allies have [tried] to break the will of the people by targeting civilian infrastructure
-
 Lobna Hassairi, SAMS


"There's been a lot of moving around for a lot of people on the ground in Syria due to airstrikes and attacks on hospitals. We, at SAMS, had to relocate a number of facilities to new locations following attacks," the spokesperson said.

If the strikes continue, they will have a devastating impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are already living without access to adequate shelter, food, sanitation, and medical care.

"There is an acute need for the provision of chronic care to ensure that life-saving services and medications are available to all, especially in light of current humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria," the SAMS worker said.

"The international community needs to immediately contribute additional funding for an emergency response prioritising the shelter, wash and healthcare of the newly displaced… as winter approaches."

Thousands of homeless children in Idlib are approaching the winter with only the clothes on their backs and no shelter apart from the trees

If Russia and the regime continue their airstrikes on hospitals and medical workers, there will be nobody left to prevent them from succumbing to the elements, and the death toll in Idlib will likely reach even more horrific proportions.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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