Idlib peace talks mean little to Syrians under fire
Ever since Assad's regime recaptured the majority of opposition territories across the country, Idlib has provided a haven for the majority of displaced families once involved in the uprising, unable to return home and forced to stay displaced in domestic exile.
Idlib has been one of the main issues at the international negotiations in Russia aiming to resolve what Moscow calls "the last rebel pocket".
The Sochi agreement, launched in September 2018, established a buffer zone with Russia and Turkey running joint patrols in the area between rebel-held and Assad-held territory.
But despite the agreement, Syrian troops have been bolstered by Iranian militants recently removed from Damascus - reportedly after Russian orders - and moved towards the infamous T-4 airbase and Idlib's frontlines.
The militants have been significantly increasing their attacks against Idlib's rural enclave, where the death toll has continued to grow, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The largest bakery in Khan Shaykhoun has been devastated after it was deliberately targeted in a recent bombing, which killed four civilians.
"This bakery is the only one of its kind in the area," local activist Bahr Shaheen told The New Arab. "People from inside and outside the town come in the morning and all day to buy their bread supply - it was deliberately targeted by Assad's militants, he's done it before.
"Assad's militants are targeting vital facilities, now they devastated our bakeries, later they'll attack hospitals and schools."
|We were forced to leave the town. The bombing has always been random and sudden; it hasn't stopped since last year, but massively increased in the past few months|
Khan Shaykhoun, along with other towns in the Idlib countryside, has been pounded with mortars, explosive rockets and cluster bombs.
"We're very frustrated and letdown, even though Russia and Turkey have agreed to set up the demilitarised zone here. There is no application whatsoever, or commitment. It's worse [than before Sochi]," added Shaheen.
Thousands of families who have already fled from Aleppo, Homs, Ghouta and Dara'a have had no choice but to leave their shelters under fire and become displaced for a second or third time.
Fawaz Haj Alo is a father-of-three who fled from Arbin in East Gouta last April and settled in Al-Teh, a town in the Idlib area with his family.
But the local council has announced an emergency situation after declaring "catastrophic status" on the majority of Idlib's southern countryside.
"Since we arrived in this town we've been trying to establish a way to earn a living and resume our lives. We were, despite the desperate circumstances, able to survive," Fawaz told The New Arab.
"However, we were forced to leave the town. The bombing has always been random and sudden; it hasn't stopped since last year, but massively increased in the past few months.
"Our house and our neighbours' one got hit by the attacks. My son was already wounded with shrapnel in his legs. As a result, we had to move to the Salqen camp near the border.
"I call on everyone to help us, it's unbearable here in these camps, there is nothing to survive with, no NGOs, no food. Just stop the bombing, so we go back to our town."
The SOHR recently reported 2,200 displaced families are facing dire conditions in Salqen and Harem, described as "forgotten camps", rarely reached by humanitarian relief deliveries.
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|Children waiting for an ambulance after a bombing in Khan Shaykhoun on February 16, 2019 [Anadolu]|
However, many civilians remain in Idlib's towns under fire, maintaining their shelters and unwilling to leave their homes, taking daily risks out of a sense of despair and a lack of alternatives.
"Where would we go to? The borders and camps are full of refugees, we can't find an empty tent or shelter," said Salem Obayda, an Arabic teacher living in Maratnomn.
The town has come under daily artillery fire, with many families forced to leave the southern part of the city, heading towards the camps on the border.
"Education here was fully halted because of the attacks and a lack of underground schools," says Salem. "I prefer to stay rather than undergoing the dilemma in the border camps.
"Everything is under attack, the peace talks have brought only blood and grief to us. All of us can see a large scale insurgency looming in the close future.
"We have no military existence in the city, all the factions left as part of the peace talks, but it has changed nothing, we've been under ruthless attacks since the start.
"We've been displaced many times, from Dara'a to Ghouta then to Idlib and within the cities. Where else would we go? Turkey has closed its border, camps are the only option. We are not willing to go anywhere, and we'd rather stay - regardless of the consequences."
|There have been indiscriminate attacks against civilian residential areas, killing unarmed people - nevertheless, our medical and rescue teams are working on the ground, day and night|
Amid the devastation and rubble, volunteers from Syria's Civil Defence Corps, known as The White Helmets, have been doing what they can to save lives.
"The White Helmets have been carrying out non-stop rescue efforts to help civilians affected by Assad's relentless offensive," Mohammad Abdoullah, a White Helmet volunteer in northern Syria told The New Arab.
"Our teams have been at full capacity across northern Syria's towns," he added.
"There have been indiscriminate attacks against civilian residential areas, killing unarmed people - nevertheless, our medical and rescue teams are working on the ground, day and night.
"Most of the deaths and injuries have been women and children," added Abdoullah. "We've been taking risks and pulling dead and severely injured and burned bodies from beneath the collapsed buildings."
Hospitals and makeshift medical centres across northern Syria have been over-crowded with patients. Many have been moved to Turkish hospitals due to a lack of equipment.
"In spite of the medical fund's recent cut, we're still able to function and run the hospitals to treat the large numbers of patients we've been receiving so far," said D.Feras al-Jonde, the health minister in the Azaz-based Syrian Interim Government formed by the National Coalition forSyrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
"On the other hand, the medical support available isn't sustainable and [treatment] won't be carried out as efficiently as it is at the moment [for long], we're running low on medical resources," said al-Jonde.
"We put the responsibility for the catastrophic consequences of the medical fund's cut on the international community - who must as soon as possible understand the upcoming shut-down of our medical facilities.
"The donors must be conscious of putting more than 3.5 million civilians at risk of losing even their rights to medical treatment."
Zouhir al-Shimale is a Syrian journalist from Aleppo.
Follow him on Twitter: @ZouhirAlShimale