'Killed in their class seats': Children bear brunt of Syrian government bombing of Idlib
Four-year-old Khaled al-Bakour was trying to hide in his bedroom with two of his brothers to avoid attacks by Syrian warplanes when the walls of the concrete house fell down and buried him under the rubble.
His screaming brothers looked on, too young to do anything, surrounded by what was left of the house in Maarat al-Numan, south of Idlib city.
"He's here, help us for God's sake," the brothers cried as White Helmets, members of the civil defence team that operates in rebel-held areas of Syria, arrived at the scene and desperately tried to remove broken pieces of stone to find him.
Having been rescued from the building, Khaled was taken to a nearby hospital following the attack.
Speaking to Middle East Eye on Thursday, Khaled's father said: "My son has two fractures and a loss of the skin and muscles of his left hand.
"He lost one of his fingers, and the doctors told me he might lose another finger.
"Yesterday he underwent surgery. There is also a loss of skin and muscle and a sharp fracture of his right foot."
Khaled is just the latest child to fall victim to an escalation in attacks on Idlib province by Syrian and Russian forces since late April, where on average two children are killed and a school is targeted everyday, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) activist group.
The SNHR says that between 26 April and 27 June 2019, at least 518 civilians were killed in Idlib, including 128 children and 97 women, and at least 1,612 civilians injured.
The organisation told MEE that the Russian-Syrian alliance had also targeted 77 schools.
"We emphasise that targeting schools with guided missiles is a systematic process by the Damascus forces and their allies," Fadel Abdul Ghany, the chairman of SNHR, told MEE.
"Schools are protected by international law, and deliberate targeting is a war crime."
Syrian and Russian warplanes constantly fly over the area, with inhabitants not knowing where the next attack will be launched or which school might be hit.
"Children were killed in their seats, and others were targeted in kindergartens, systematically to instil chaos and panic and force people to return to the authority of Damascus, or live without services and facilities,” Abdul Ghany said.
"Damascus aims to stop the educational process, push children to join the ranks of the fighters, and build an uneducated generation dominated by ignorance."
'Break the morale of civilians'
After Damascus took control of the governorates of Daraa, Homs and rural Damascus, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced to Idlib province, where the population now numbers about three million people.
In late 2018, an agreement in Sochi between the Turkish and Russian presidents forestalled an expected attack on Idlib by Syrian pro-government forces.
However, since late April, Syrian and Russian forces have repeatedly attacked the southern parts of Idlib province and adjacent parts of Hama and Latakia.
The area under attack is mostly under the control of former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Syrian state media outlets say that the escalation is intended to target "terrorist groups" present in the region.
In a less than two-month period in Idlib, in addition to the 77 schools, SNHR told MEE that the attacks by the Syrian and Russian forces had targeted 33 medical facilities, 46 houses of worship and three camps.
Brigadier Ahmed Rahal, an analyst and military expert who defected from the Syrian government, told MME: “Ninety percent of the military operations and the attacks led by Damascus and Moscow are against civilians [in a bid to] pressure the fighters.
“The systematic targeting of infrastructure aims to cause the greatest possible destruction, break the morale of civilians and cut off all [their] services.
"These military operations are aimed to shock, to create a desperate public that puts pressure on the rebels to stop fighting, like what happened in Daraa, which is now controlled by Damascus."
Earlier this month, in a briefing to the UN Security Council regarding the situation in Idlib, Rodney Hunter, political coordinator for the US Mission to the UN, denounced Syrian and Russian activities in the province.
“We need to see a full and immediate de-escalation of violence by all sides and, in particular, the Assad regime forces and the Russian Federation in and around Idlib province," said Hunter.
"The regime’s military escalation is unacceptable and it poses a reckless and irresponsible threat to the security and stability of this region.”
In addition to the deaths and casualties to children caused by the upsurge in violence, many, like Khaled, have lost their homes and seen their education curtailed.
According to UNICEF: “This latest escalation follows months of rising violence in the area which has reportedly left at least 125,000 children displaced since the start of the year.
"Nearly 30 hospitals have come under attack. Approximately 43,000 children are now out of school and final exams in parts of Idlib have been postponed, affecting the education of 400,000 students.”
Sitting among olive trees in a camp north of Idlib, looking through her mother's mobile phone, is seven-year-old Fatima.
She and her family were displaced from the south of the province by the recent escalation in violence.
"I cannot complete my studies. My school and the rest of the schools are under attack," she told MEE.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.