Civil Defense: ‘Life at a complete standstill’ in Khan Sheikhoun after dozens of airstrikes in past week

After the announcement of a “de-escalation” agreement in four regions of Syria during talks in Astana, Kazakhstan in May, Khan Sheikhoun, in the southern countryside of Idlib province, witnessed a marked decrease in air attacks by regime forces and their allies, including Russia.

Khan Sheikhoun was the site of a deadly chemical attack in April that killed at least 74 people, including children.

On September 15, Idlib province—in addition to parts of neighboring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces—became the fourth and final “de-escalation zone,” where international monitors would oversee a cessation of hostilities between regime and rebel forces.

But after the hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham launched an offensive on September 19 in northern Hama—just south of Khan Sheikhoun—regime forces and their allies responded within hours, launching dozens of airstrikes on rebel territory in Hama and Idlib provinces.

Regime and Russian warplanes have conducted air raids across Idlib province and opposition-controlled territory in neighboring Hama through Monday. [Some of Syria Direct’s coverage is here.]

“When the bombing resumed, life came to a complete standstill,” says Mohammed al-Junaid, a first responder and spokesman for the Civil Defense from Khan Sheikhoun.

Half of the residents fled while those who remain will not leave the shelter, fearing the bombardment,” al-Junaid tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.

Regime forces and their Russian allies have carried out more than 80 airstrikes on the city of Khan Sheikhoun over the last four days, according to a September 23 statement from the Khan Sheikhoun Media Center.

Civil Defense members clear rubble in Khan Sheikhoun on September 21. Photo courtesy of Civil Defense Idlib.

Syrian state media outlet SANA reported that airstrikes are targeting “terrorist supply lines” in Idlib province, which is largely controlled by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.

Five of those airstrikes hit the Civil Defense center in Khan Sheikhoun on September 19, reported the rescue organization. First responders are now working at a limited capacity, resorting to using civilian vehicles to transport injured residents.

Al-Junaid was at the center when the strikes began, but escaped without injury.

“All of the equipment in the center was destroyed,” says al-Junaid. “This means working for hours, trying to pull injured civilians or bodies from their homes [after an airstrike] with bare bones equipment.”

Q: Could you describe for us what Khan Sheikhoun looks like today? What conditions are civilians in the city living after bombardment in Idlib province resumed last week?

The bombing of the city continues, and the warplanes are still in the sky. Yesterday, Khan Sheikhoun was hit with 13 strikes while the city has been hit by four strikes today as of three o’clock in the afternoon.

As for the situation inside the city, it has become like a ghost town. Half of the residents fled while those who remain will not leave the shelter, fearing bombardment.

When the bombing resumed, life came to a complete standstill. It’s tragic.

Q: Could you talk to us about some of the rescue cases that you’ve witnessed as a Civil Defense member? Are there certain cases that have stuck with you?

Yes, there are a number of cases that have stuck with me, the most recent one being yesterday [Sunday]. A warplane targeted a residential district of Khan Sheikhoun at approximately four in the afternoon, and an entire house collapsed in the air raid. A family of four lived in the house—a mother and her three children.

We transported two of the children [for medical care]. The mother was not injured, but her 8-month-old daughter was missing. We spent hours looking for her through the rubble and the dirt. We saw movement and found the girl. She was buried under the dirt, but she was still alive. But as we rushed her to a medical facility, she passed away on the road. I could not do anything as a paramedic, and it tore me up inside.

Q: On September 19, the headquarters of the Syrian Civil Defense in Khan Sheikhoun was shut down after being damaged in an air raid. Could you tell us about how the Civil Defense in Khan Sheikhoun is able to continue its work? What are the major obstacles that you now face?

The city is constantly being hit, with several locations often struck at the same time. We don’t have enough equipment—this is the main obstacle.

We only have one vehicle to transport the injured, and we are about 25 kilometers from the nearest medical facility. We depend on civilian vehicles, and Civil Defense members are now riding motorcycles to reach bombing sites.

These are the only options we have.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.