Syria Weekly: Syrians organise evacuation of besieged Maarat Al-Numan
Much of the bombing has been centred on Maarat Al-Numan and the surrounding villages, which swelled when a stream of refugees from other parts of Syria fled to the market town with the estimated population growing to 110,000 inhabitants.
The recent bombardment has seen the population reduced to around 30,000, with 80,000 people fleeing towards the Turkish border this week.
The regime's latest assault on Maarat Al-Numan, said to be the heaviest bombardment of the area during the war, appears designed at capturing the town and surrounding countryside, but more importantly the M5 motorway.
The highway between Syria's two largest cities - Aleppo and Damascus - passes through Maarat Al-Numan but is controlled by opposition forces with Turkish observers also present.
Capturing the road has been a major goal of the regime, with previous offensives seeing allied militias take other towns and villages on the route, including Khan Sheikhoun.
Sources told The New Arab's Arabic-language service this week that the bombardment could also be an attempt to pressure opposition forces to hand over the west of Idlib province in exchange for a ceasefire.
Campaign of extermination
Over the past few days, Russia and the Syrian regime have enacted a campaign of "extermination" in the south Idlib town, activists say, designed to empty it of human life and open it up for a ground assault.
Scores have been killed and injured from barrel bomb attacks and missile strikes on the town and surrounding countryside, while machine gun fire and shelling has targeted those fleeing the area.
Any Maarat Al-Numan resident with the means to escape did so earlier this week. But with helicopters and aircraft circling overhead and strafing the convoys, by Friday it became too dangerous for civilians to leave by road. Many of those left behind were the poor and the sick, children and the elderly.
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The intensity of the aerial attacks over the past few days forced civilians to hunker down in shelters or hide among the rubble of their homes waiting for a lull in the bombing.
In one heart-breaking video shared on Twitter, a man trapped in the devastated town made a desperate plea to the outside world for help.
"Oh people of benevolence, come help people leave the city, the situation is very difficult," he told the camera.
"There are not enough cars, there are no places for the people of the city to go to. Come help, even with a small car to help people leave," he pleaded before breaking into tears.
When a thick fog descended on the area and concealed the town from hostile aircraft on Friday, it offered civilians the brief window they needed to escape.
Hastily-arranged convoys were organised by aid groups, while anyone in north Idlib with a car drove south to Maarat Al-Numan before a new offensive on the town was launchedd.
Syrians shared the hashtag #IdlibIsUnderFire as an SOS to the world. Aid groups such as Kids Paradise have set up a 24-hour hotline to aid in the evacuation.
"Last night there was heavy fog, so there were fewer air strikes which helped people leave the town," one member of Kids Paradise told The New Arab, helping to rescue around 300 people on Friday.
"There was still random shelling and bombing from regime areas of the highways leaving Maarat Al-Numan but many people managed to escape."
By Saturday, around 30,000 people were left and the town almost devoid of services, food, and petrol with only a small number of medical staff providing any relief for the residents at their makeshift field hospitals.
Vehicles raced down the highway towards Maarat Al-Numan to save the last residents before the next stage of the regime offensive.
Even those who escaped the town have been shot at, with one bullet shattering the glass of a minivan carrying a family north. Luckily, nobody was hurt, Kids Paradise said.
When the residents reached the relative safety of northern Idlib they were provided with water, hot food and shelter by Kids Paradise and other aid groups to offer some comfort for the children after their gruelling and terrifying journey.
Syrians in Turkey and elsewhere have donated cars, money and anything else they have to help with the evacuation with each minivan trip costing around $125, Kids Paradise said.
Even in the north of Idlib, towns and villages are subjected to frequent attacks, making the only real place of safety for Syrians across the border in Turkey.
Although some designated aid workers have been given permission by Ankara to move between the two countries, the vast majority of refugees are trapped in areas along the border.
Some of the refugees have risked the dangerous crossing into Turkey but many have been shot and killed by Turkish patrols.
Protests have been held on the border urging Ankara to rethink its policy, but for now Turkish border guards are keeping a watchful eye on the build-up of refugees on the frontier.
Due to a lack of shelter and Russian air strikes pounding the area, they are increasingly desperate to reach safety across the border.
On Saturday, suspected Russian aircraft targeted the northern town of Harem, an area where the refugees from Maarat Al-Numan had been evacuated to.
Things turned even grimmer on Friday night when Russia and China vetoed a resolution to extend cross-border humanitarian aid through UN-sponsored crossings to Idlib's 4 million residents for another year.
NGOs and aid workers are doing what they can before the current deadline expires in mid-January, but the resolution's supporters have already made concessions to Russia this week, by dropping a request to open a fourth crossing from Jordan to southern Syria.
With the Russia bombing of southern Idlib over the past months forcing a million people from their home, Moscow now appears to be trying to starve the refugees into submission.
Once again, the rest of the world stands by, impotent, as Russia and the Syrian regime continue their brutal assault on the Idlib town.
For the people left in Maarat Al-Numan, they have only their fellow Syrians and a few other supporters to save them from extermination.
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin