As he had done dozens of times before, Anas al-Diab rushed to film the aftermath of an airstrike in Syria’s Idlib province.
The 22-year-old citizen journalist and rescuer with the White Helmets volunteer group snapped photographs of a leveled potato chip factory in Khan Sheikhoun on Friday as his friends and colleagues hosed down the flames.
Suddenly, another explosion hit. This time Diab became a victim, but he kept his camera rolling.
The dramatic footage provided to CNN by the White Helmets shows Diab bleeding heavily from the legs, unable to stand, as he cries out for help.
“Guys, guys, please come carry me,” he shouts to his fellow rescue workers, the video shows. “I can’t move.”
Several other men try to get him to safety, but without a stretcher, they are forced to drag him out, his bloody legs trailing through the dusty debris.
“I know you, I know you! My dear Anas!” one of Diab’s friends says as he rushes to help him.
Then comes the whoosh of a plane, another bomb lands and the men are pinned to the ground. One grabs his radio and calls for backup.
Airstrikes are nothing new to Khan Sheikhoun, the town in Idlib province where more than 80 people were killed in a Sarin gas attack last year. The United Nations and international chemical weapons experts say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was behind the attack, which prompted a US military strike on Syrian regime targets.
Fore more than two years, Syrian forces and their allies have been flushing their enemies from swaths of territory they regained in the long-running conflict. Many opposition fighters and their families were bused into Idlib, pounded by airstrikes in recent days in a regime operation to retake Syria’s last remaining major rebel stronghold.
Up to 3 million people are packed into a rural enclave in Idlib province that borders Turkey to the north. Among them are some 70,000 fighters, their allegiances ranging from moderate to radical.
The sheer number of civilians crammed into this enclave and the clearly disproportionate firepower used on them prompted the United Nations to warn that the operation may soon become a “bloodbath.” US officials are worried the regime could again use chemical warfare.
“There needs to be ways of dealing with this problem that don’t turn the next few months in Idlib into the worst humanitarian catastrophe with the biggest loss of life of the 21st century,” warned the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Mark Lowcock, at a press briefing in Geneva on Monday.
Russia, the Syrian regime’s most muscular ally, has provided much of the air power behind Assad’s territorial gains in recent years. Russia and Syria say they only target terrorists, an assertion contradicted by accounts on the ground.
Amateur video that cannot be independently verified by CNN shows scenes of chaos and carnage playing out across the province: families with children run through the shells of their homes; a woman pancaked under the rubble except for a protruding hand, still moving; and bombings, one after another turning the skyline dark gray.
Diab is one of the luckier ones; he survived and continues to recover in a hospital.
“They are targeting innocent civilians and trying to kill as many of us as possible,” he said from his bed. “As I was being rescued I told the guys to hold onto the camera because it has the material that can incriminate this criminal and send him to an international court.”
In spite of the risks, some civilians are taking to the streets again in demonstrations reminiscent of the early days of the revolution against Assad, during the 2011 Arab Spring.
Thousands packed squares across Idlib on Friday, activists told CNN, calling not for lofty ideals but for the right to survive.
“Idlib, we are with you until death,” they chanted, video shows.
They may well be the last words of this uprising.