Idlib was thought to be the last main refuge from war in Syria. But now, the province has become the government’s newest target. Where do displaced civilians go when there’s nowhere left to run?
A father’s voice trembled as he remembered the moment when he thought he might have lost one of his boys.
Mohammad Qadhaqebji, 42, lost his wife in Aleppo’s fighting six years ago, and has been raising his two sons on his own ever since. When bombs started to fall from the sky earlier this month, his boys were at home studying for exams.
“They were screaming ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ Ahmed was right here, but Yasser, I was looking. I couldn’t find him. For half an hour, I couldn’t find him, I could just hear him scream, in this space,” said Qadheqebji.
“And then thank God, it was just light wounds.”
A year ago, the Qadhaqebji family fled the horrors of Aleppo for Idlib, but they are now again at the mercy of a relentless Syrian government bombing campaign. This time, there is nowhere to run. They are trapped in one of the last remaining “de-escalation zones”, supposed safe havens in Syria, that have turned into anything but.
The sense of despair is rampant in Idlib, Syria’s last opposition-held province. Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to escape an intensified government assault, but with Turkey’s borders closed and regime-held areas surrounding the province, Idlib is in a chokehold.
“What’s happening in Idlib is exactly what happened in Aleppo,” Syrian media activist Louai Abo Aljoud told CNN, referring to the Syrian government’s siege on eastern Aleppo last year to drive rebels out of the strategic town.
“It is the same Russian strategy. They put an area under siege then they attack it. Then they move to another area,” he said.
Local human-rights groups say that the displaced have been moving from town to town, escaping the bombing but unable to find any permanent respite as government forces expand their onslaught against the rebels.
According to United Nations figures, the Idlib area is home to over 1.1 million of Syria’s 6.1 million internally displaced people (IDPs), many of whom escaped other formerly opposition-held areas after they were overrun by government forces.
Many in the northwestern Syrian province hail from eastern Aleppo, recaptured by government forces a year ago after a vicious ground and air assault that sparked an international outcry. Backed by Russian air power, regime forces shelled the city repeatedly for nearly four years.
Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, recently rebranded as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), has a strong presence in Idlib, among other jihadists as well as moderates.
Renewed air and ground offensives by Russian-backed Syrian forces against rebel strongholds have also targeted the besieged Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 193 civilians have died in Eastern Ghouta over the past two weeks.
According to the United Nations, at least 390,000 civilians have been living under siege in Eastern Ghouta for the past four years.
The attacks come just weeks before Moscow-sponsored peace talks are set to take place in the Russian resort town of Sochi.
Major opposition parties have said they intend to boycott the talks, but analysts say that Assad’s latest offensive may force those groups to take part.
Idlib is one of several de-escalation zones that Russia, Turkey and Iran – all major players in the Syrian conflict – agreed to in a May 2017 agreement.
Russia is Assad’s most powerful ally and has carried out airstrikes against rebels to prop up the embattled Syrian president since September 2015.
Idlib: a ‘ticking bomb’
“What we are looking at right now is basically a ticking bomb that might explode at any moment if the regime continues advancing in Idlib,” said Haid Haid, Syrian research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College in London.
“There’s no way to leave that area. There’s no way that many of them can move to regime-controlled areas. So, what we are looking at here is a big number of people who are waiting to be slaughtered if no action is taken,” he said.
Carrying her infant cousin along a dusty path lined with tents in one of the makeshift camps set up by Turkey, Bushra Hajji, 10, talked about her love of math. But ever since airstrikes hit her village in the Idlib countryside, school may just be a dream for her.
She described moving between relatives’ houses to escape the incessant shelling, until finally, her family made their way to the camps lining the road to Turkey.
“We left half our stuff…house, room, toys… I have nightmares of the planes hitting my house,” said Bushra.
Turkey, home to more than 3.4 million registered Syrian refugees, has severely restricted their entry in the past three years. But the displaced in Idlib have amassed at the border with hopes that the area will be spared the fighting.
“Physically, refugees cannot leave Syria… Turkey’s attitude towards Syrians and Syrian refugees has changed dramatically since March 2015 when they closed the border. There is no indication that Turkey will change that,” said Kings College’s Haid.
Turkey maintained an open-border policy for Syrians until 2015. Officials said the country could no longer absorb Syrian refugees.
“What we will most likely be looking at is large-scale wave of IDPs (internally displaced persons) who will try to get as close as possible to the Turkish border but will most likely not be allowed to go to Turkey,” he added.
Those crammed in the camps fear that “safe” areas will be bombed. They lie to their children to give them hope, hope that for them is long gone.
“I tell her tomorrow (we will go back home), so that she can still have hope. She plays with the other children, but she knows what’s going on,” said Saddam Yousuf, who arrived with his daughter Arwa at a refugee camp just one week ago.
Another displaced person, 45-year-old Abdulkareem Mohammad, spoke bitterly about what should have been one of his most joyous days – the birth of his son Mohammad. But his wife delivered the little boy in the cold and damp refugee camp.
“What joy? We cried. It would have been easier if a barrel bomb had just hit us while we were sleeping,” said 45-year-old Abdulkareem Mohammad.
“God has forgotten us. We complain to God. If he wants to forget us – so be it. He created us.”
CNN’s Arwa Damon, Gul Tuysuz and Brice Laine reported from Idlib, Syria, while Tamara Qiblawi wrote from Beirut. CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh and Sarah Sirgany also contributed to this report.