SYRIA — A girl in a pink shirt grabs a rod of twisted metal protruding from the rubble. Her legs are trapped under a ceiling that collapsed during an airstrike in rebel-held northwest Syria on Thursday.
“Where is my mother?” nine-year-old Islam Habra asks, her voice choked with tears. A Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) rescue worker tries to free her from the mountain of rubble.
“She’s over there,” answers White Helmets volunteer Laith al-Abdullah. “Don’t cry, sweetheart.”
Habra’s mother died after warplanes struck the house in two airstrikes, known as a double-tap strike in which warplanes attack a site and return to attack it again, according to rescue workers who spoke to CNN. Two other children, aged three and nine years old, were also killed.
Habra’s rescue operation was captured in social media video released by the White Helmets.
As a second airstrike hits the neighborhood, Habra is still stuck, but unharmed. Abdullah calls out to her: “Nothing’s happened!” Later, a group of men manage to pull her out of the rubble.
“I couldn’t leave the girl,” Abdullah told CNN. “While you are trying to save someone, you have to keep speaking with them until you finish the rescue.”
“We could not tell her that her mother had been killed. We tried to make her forget the situation she was in,” said Abdullah.
Habra’s mother was alive when Abdullah first arrived at the scene, he said. He could hear her voice from under the rubble. But after the second airstrike, she fell silent. “We could no longer hear her. She was killed,” said Abdullah.
The dramatic video comes as the Syrian regime and Russia intensified artillery and air strikes in rebel-held Idlib province in Syria since Monday. More than 50 people have been killed in the latest round of attacks, according to the White Helmets, with at least 16 dead on Thursday alone.
On Sunday, White Helmet volunteer, Anwar Humaidi, lost his wife and three children in an artillery strike, according to the rescue group.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 50,000 Syrians in Idlib have tried to escape to bordering Turkey amid the renewed military campaign.
“Turkey already hosts 4 million [refugees], now another 50,000 are heading to our land from Idlib, (Syria),” Erdogan said from Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur on Thursday during a meeting for Muslim world leaders.
Anadolu did not provide any details on whether the people fleeing from Idlib were admitted into Turkey.
Since October, more than 100,000 people in northwest Syria have left their homes, fleeing north to the Turkish border, according to the White Helmets. There has been a further spike in the last 48 hours, the rescue group said.
According to UN figures, Idlib province is home to more than 1.1 million of Syria’s 6.1 million internally displaced people. The refugee camps, many of which are near the border with Turkey, are overcrowded and don’t have the capacity to take the tens of thousands now seeking safer ground.
The Syrian government and its Russian backers routinely target the area, claiming to target “terrorists” in the rebel-held area.
Idlib is a political and humanitarian tinderbox. Rebels from areas recaptured by the regime in the last seven years have been bussed here, many of them jihadists. The fighters include a mix of foreigners, including Chinese Uyghurs, Chechens and Uzbeks. Al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, rebranded Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has a strong and growing presence in the area.