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'This is a massacre': Civilians decry aerial campaign in Idlib as children killed

Women and children appear to be bearing brunt of latest aerial campaign by Russia and Syrian government
All 12 of those killed in Thursday's air strikes were women and children, with a total of 150 civilians killed in the last week (MEE/Abdelaziz Ketaz)

Syrian civilians living in villages in rebel-held Idlib province say they are being indiscriminately targeted by Syrian government and Russian air strikes with babies and children among those killed and critically injured.

Sources on the ground described scenes of chaos and devastation as homes in residential areas were flattened during an intense week-long bombardment that has killed at least 150 civilians and wounded dozens more, according to civil defence officials.

It's such a hard emotion to see any human being turned into pieces before your eyes, but when it is your own family... it is indescribable

- Anas Alabdulla, local journalist

"I witnessed such unbelievable chaos, ordinary people trapped underneath rubble, and the civil defence desperately trying to pull them out and searching for pieces of people’s bodies everywhere,” Anas Alabdulla, a local journalist from Mohambel in Idlib, told Middle East Eye, after rushing to the scene of one air strike at 9.40am on Thursday.

Among those killed, he found, were three of his own cousins, all children. All 12 of those killed in the strike were women and children, he said.

"It's such a hard emotion to see any human being turned into pieces before your eyes, but when it is your own family... you have the connection to them, the memories, it is indescribable.”

One of those killed was his 10-year-old cousin Amani Mustafa, he said.

Civilians search for the bodies of survivors, and the dead (MEE/Abdelaziz Ketaz)

"She was one of best students at school," he said, who had dreamed of becoming a scientist.

“I ask Russia, at what point did a child become a terrorist? And the silent international community, what use are your empty promises and lies for Amani and the other children in this massacre?”

Russia has denied targeting civilians and claims that it is targeting Islamist militants. Much of Idlib province is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is a former affiliate of al-Qaeda.

Women and children killed

But residents in the village of Hwair al Ess told MEE that three civilian homes were struck at 12.20pm on 26 September, killing a mother and her six-year-old child.

Eleven others were wounded, of whom six subsequently died in hospitals in Turkey after being transferred across the border.

Speaking to MEE on the phone, Husain Ahmad, 33, said: “My cousin’s 27-year-old wife and her six-year-old were killed in their home. My cousin was in the next room, he survived. His 10-year-old son is now in critical condition in Antakya hospital.

Everyone here is in shock. This is a massacre, everyone in our village has been affected. We will never forget this day

- Husain Ahmad, local resident

“Everyone here is in shock. This is a massacre, everyone in our village has been affected. We will never forget this day.”

Husain, who works for the local council, was in his home when the strikes hit.

“There were Russian and Syrian jets in the air at midday. Everyone was inside their homes. We heard the first strike and came out and saw some of the homes had been hit. They are civilian homes, this is a residential area.

“This is a small village. There is no fighting here. We have no extremists, no Daesh [Islamic State group], no Nusra [a former name for HTS rebels], no nothing!” 

A Civil Defence volunteer takes a break, amid the intensive rescue operations in Idlib (MEE/Abdelaziz Ketaz)

Another small residential village in the province of Aleppo, known as Al Muhandiseen Al Awal, was struck less than two hours later at 2pm by a Russian missile that hit the home of a young family, killing the father Mohamad Al Issa, his wife and toddler son. 

Syrian citizen journalist Fawaz Juwad who visited both sites after the strikes told MEE that “there was no sense in hitting villages”.

Fawaz was one of the first on the scene alongside the civil defence team. “We took out a family who had sadly, all died. I don’t know what age the child was, he was wearing a nappy.

“He was dead when we pulled him out and he was clinging to his mother, who was also dead.”

He was dead when we pulled him out and he was clinging to his mother, who was also dead

- Fawaz Juwad, local journalist

Local sources told MEE that at least 30,000 people had been displaced by a week of heavy bombing with most making their way to refugee camps along parts of the Turkish border that are protected by a "safe zone" deal between Russia and Turkey.

Idlib has been a relatively safe haven in recent months for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the conflict elsewhere in Syria, including many from Aleppo city, which was recaptured by the Syrian government last December.

Ali Obied, a civil defence volunteer who is on the ground in Idlib province, told MEE that he had been surprised to have been called out to a farming area.

“On 23 September at 1pm we received a call that a nearby former animal rearing farm in Kafr Halab was hit by what seemed to be a Russian missile.” 

Civilians stand in the street in Jisr al-Shughur, Idlib, after a Russian air attack on 25 September (AFP)

Locals in Kafr Halab, a small residential town in the western Aleppo countryside where many displaced families from Aleppo had settled, told MEE that the former farm was now home to families who were too poor to rent their own homes.

Obied told MEE that when they arrived on the scene they found one child among the four injured and one dead adult body.

“While we were on the scene family members of the wounded came to try to help remove the bodies, but we were hit by a second strike and three of the relatives that came to the rescue were hurt.

“We didn’t have enough space in the ambulance for all the injured.”

Bodies in pieces

At least two civilians were reported killed in another suspected Russian missile strike on the village of Kafr Karmin in western Aleppo.

Obied, who was on the ground minutes after the second strike in Kafr Karmin describes the scene, “We arrived six minutes after the strike, which was at midday. One woman and a child were among the six who were seriously hurt and we recovered two bodies that were in the factory.”

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Two workers in a tile factory were killed in the strike, along with residents of nearby houses.

Abdelaziz Ketaz, a citizen journalist from Idlib, said the local civil defence and volunteers on the scene had put the number of civilians killed at nine, including three women and six children, and the number injured 15.

Ketaz said he had been unable to capture on film the bodies of the dead when he arrived on the scene as “they were all in pieces”. 

He sent some photographs from the scene that were too disturbing to use and told MEE: “Do you see now why we cannot capture the depth of these atrocities?” 

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