It was only after the dust from the air strike settled that Fareed al-Mhlol realised his home had taken a direct hit.
The walls of his house in the town of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, had crumbled in, injuring his entire family and killing his aunt.
Rebel-held Idlib on Sunday faced its heaviest day of strikes since the latest government offensive began on April 30, according to the war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Bombs have been raining down indiscriminately on residential areas, on schools and on hospitals for weeks, as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces attempt to retake the final opposition stronghold.
“I ran first towards my mother and my sisters. I took them out of the house where I thought they would be safer,” Mr Mhlol told the Telegraph by phone on Monday.
“Then I ran in the direction of my aunt in order to reassure her. It was then I saw an unspeakable scene – the wall had fallen on her and she had been covered in rubble. She was dead.
“I don’t know what we are going to do now, where we are going to go,” Mr Mhlol messaged. “There’s nowhere safe left.”
The family had already been forced to move from their last home after it was destroyed by strikes. His aunt and uncle had been living with them as theirs too had been levelled.
“Assad destroyed my house and destroyed all my memories,” he said. “Assad wants to kill me and kill my family because I am an activist and a journalist trying to get the truth out to the world of the massacres going on in Idlib.”
Ma’arat al-Nu’man has been a regular target for the regime. The town has been the most vocal in its opposition not only to Assad but also to ruling Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), countering Assad’s narrative that all those remaining in Idlib are terrorists and sympathisers.
Pls, friend, raise a flower, take a photo/video,share it with#RISE4IDLIB htg.
YOU CAN SAVE US,rising as a human being. Stand up for #IDLIB with
your soul.Let me know it, and let others know you are outraged by
what Assad, Putin, Iran and others, are doing to us. #Eyesonidlib pic.twitter.com/jBB3KsfLwK
— Marwa from Syria (@Marwa76175721) 13 May 2019
Mr Mhlol’s seven-year-old sister Marwa, who was wounded in Sunday’s attack, has herself campaigned on social media for attacks on Idlib to stop.
“You are sending your bombs on me, do I look like a terrorist?” she wrote on her Twitter account in March. “If I die, today or tomorrow, remember that my only weapon was my smile.”
Ma’arat al-Nu’man is not a strategic town, but activists believe it is being targeted in order to terrify the civilian population into surrendering.
Idlib has swollen to more than three million after fighters and civilians from other parts of Syria were sent there from rebel-held areas recaptured by the government.
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Al-Assad helicopters receive explosive barrels at civilians while they were sleeping in the village of #al_Fataira in the village of #Idlib. One woman was killed and another wounded #Syria #idlib #EyesOnIdlib #Rise4Idlib pic.twitter.com/LBxLUAvrZx
— FARED ALMHLOL (@FARED_ALMHLOL) 26 May 2019
HTS has become the most dominant militia in the province, having swallowed up the more moderate groups. They have reportedly rejected offers to “reconcile” with the government and with nowhere left to be sent, they are now fighting to the death.
Its militants have been mounting a fierce defence for Idlib and the government and its Russian backers have been struggling to make progress.
The Observatory, which tracks Syria’s civil war, reported on Monday that 815 people, including 226 civilians have been killed since April 30.
According to the United Nations, over 200,000 people were forced to flee the continuous bombing and shelling of towns in southern Idlib and northern Hama and have few options to seek safety.
Up to 80,000 of those who have fled are sleeping rough with no shelter, and many others are crammed into overcrowded homes.
Rights groups say that government strikes have hit at least 18 health facilities, including five identified to Damascus and Moscow through the UN. Some of the facilities were targeted twice.
Those working on the ground in Syria say they are disappointed by the UN’s inaction.
“Last year, our medical staff on the ground agreed to share hospital coordinates as part of the UN de-confliction mechanism, said Dr Ahmad Tarakji, president of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). “The United Nations has a responsibility to protect these hospitals and present a tangible plan to deter such attacks. The people of Syria have the right to know who is attacking and destroying their hospitals.”
A group of 44 Syrian and international NGOs signed a letter on Monday calling for an immediate halt to attacks on civilians and hospitals in Idlib.
“With no concrete actions taken beyond political statements and promises, Syria and the world may soon be witnessing the worst humanitarian tragedy of the 21st century,” they warned.