'Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies have escalated aerial bombing of Idlib in northwest Syria, the last rebel-held province in Syria. A major offensive to capture Idlib, where three million people live, is expected.
Idlib has been the refuge for large numbers of Syrians who were displaced from towns and cities captured by Mr. Assad’s forces. There will be no Idlib after Idlib. The régime and its Russian backers have displayed utter disregard for the catastrophic number of civilian deaths that an all-out attack would cause.
On Syrian State TV, a propagandist for the Assad régime likened the solution for Idlib to the processing of garbage: “You collect trash, separate it, recycle what can be recycled and bury the rest in the ground.”
Yasser, 33, construction worker, Khan Shaykhun:
"I wake up and watch the news. We talk relentlessly about Idlib’s fate. People think Russia is going to attack no matter what.
The small shops that sell bread and vegetables are still open, but most other businesses have shut down. Farming has stopped. So has construction. The warehouse that sells cement has shuttered. A few days earlier, a nearby school was bombed. Thankfully, it was closed and nobody was hurt.
Some people are digging underground shelters and stockpiling food. We fear more chemical gas attacks. People are trying to make gas masks with whatever they have, but it won’t even work.
Turkish soldiers are still positioned in the nearby town of Morek, which is on the front line (with Syrian government forces). We keep hearing reassuring statements from Turkish officials, but most people don’t think Turkey can prevent the assault.
I was here in Khan Shaykhun last year when the régime attacked with chemical weapons. My family and I live on the opposite side of the city and weren’t affected. I went to the site of the chemical attack the next day. The streets were empty. Many in the neighborhood had died, especially those who had hidden in shelters. Those who had climbed on rooftops had survived.
America has warned the Assad régime against using chemical weapons, but we don’t exclude that possibility. We are defenseless, without even the basic equipment to protect our families from such attacks.
I am not preparing for the invasion. I am trying to flee to Turkey with my family. We will soon leave for the border.
I was a police officer in a nearby village in 2011 when the crackdown on protesters began. We were ordered to beat them. First with sticks, then with cattle prods. Soon the government wanted us to shoot. I had to defect or kill people. I defected.
Rebels took Khan Shaykhun early. We have been living here for years with aerial bombing, but now, if the régime advances, there is no other option for me but crossing into Turkey. I have to save my family. All we want is to stay in our homes and live our lives."
Um Mohammed, late 40s, homemaker, Kafranbel:
"I live in Kafranbel with my three sons and their families. My 27-year-old son dropped out of law school in Aleppo after the uprising in 2011 and became a construction worker to support us. Two years ago, an airstrike wounded his younger brother. It took a year of recovery and the insertion of metal pins into his leg for him to be able to work again.
We fall asleep to the roar of fighter planes. We wake up to the same sound in fear. It is very difficult to worry all the time about my children. Everyone is talking about the offensive. We are going to flee and become homeless. If we stay, the régime is going to arrest my sons, if only because they have been dodging the draft for years.
We are very tired. The war, and with it our suffering, has been going on for years. When I talk to people around me, I hear many wanting Turkey to control this area. “At least we won’t worry about our children,” they say. If the régime comes here, everyone will be targeted.
Women I know who survived the capture of Ghouta have told us lots of stories, about murders and mass arrests. The Syrian Army rounded up young people, either to arrest them or conscript them into the army. They humiliated them.
We fear nobody would be spared in Idlib."
Hanin, 25, activist and writer, Idlib:
"I was studying at Aleppo University when the demonstrations began in the spring of 2011, and I started attending the protests. The régime arrested many of my friends and classmates. I quit school out of solidarity with them. Quitting the university was one of the great losses of my life. Since then, the revolution has occupied my life. I grew up during — and through — the revolution.
I came back to Idlib city and tried to find my place in the revolution. I couldn’t fight and still don’t believe in the revolution’s militarization. I don’t support any armed group. I became an activist. I help organize protests and I write essays, especially about issues affecting women and children.
I married and divorced during the revolution. I now live with my family. They support me despite the negative views our society holds about divorced, independent women.
In Idlib, I have been repeatedly detained and harassed by Islamist groups. Once, I took a minibus home from work. All the other passengers had gotten off, so it was just me and the driver, when we passed through a checkpoint run by Hayat Tahrir al Sham (a former Al Qaeda affiliate that is the most powerful armed faction in Idlib).
The fighters detained me for traveling without a chaperone. When I tried to reason with them, they brought up my colorful shoes and handbag.
I have naturally long eyelashes and they accused me of wearing makeup. They forced me to wash my face in front of a bunch of fighters and people passing by. It was humiliating. Most people in and around Idlib do not support them.
Because of my activism, I am sure I am wanted by the Assad régime’s security branches. Still, I am against fleeing. I have to stay, even when the régime soldiers come. I might die, but I prefer it to slow death in another country. For others, being killed by border guards’ bullets is preferable to being arrested by the army.
Although it hurts, I don’t blame people who believed in our cause and our freedom but who got bored by this conflict. They didn’t live our lives. People who stopped caring about Syrians after the rise of Islamist groups shouldn’t have forgotten us. We need a revolution against those groups as much as we need it against the Assad régime.
We won’t give up after all these years. Recently, we organized and gathered for a series of demonstrations against Russia, the régime and Hayat Tahrir al Sham, and we will continue to demonstrate.
Idlib is not the end. We may die, but this fight will last for generations." '