Locals in the village of Urem Kubra gesture to a man standing surrounded by rubble.
“He can’t talk much. He’s in shock,” the village elder said, referring to 33-year-old Ibrahim Abu Naif.
On the wreckage of what used to be his house, Ibrahim set aside a neat pile of children’s clothing he had dug out of the debris. He lifted a blue jacket with “sports” emblazoned on the back, and brought it to his face, taking in a whiff as he did so.
“This, this was Nayef’s. He’s gone,” Ibrahim said of his 3-year-old son.
He pulled out more clothing: a red and white knit cardigan, a pair of tights with a Christmas pattern and a striped t-shirt. The clothes belonged to four of his children who were killed in last week’s airstrikes.
He has one surviving child.
“Hatice. Hatice is alive and living at her grandparents. She has a head wound,” Ibrahim told CNN, holding one of her pink sweaters.
When war planes struck Urem Kubra, a rebel-held village just outside Idlib province on Friday night, most of the women in the village were home with children, preparing dinner. The planes hovered in the air for around 10 minutes before the first strikes, witnesses said. The jets then swung back around, hitting the town two more times. More than 40 people were killed in 30 minutes, the majority of them women and children.
Ten-year-old Ibrahim Dervish wandered aimlessly around the Urem Kubra town square, a few meters from the ice cream shop where he and his friends used to play.
“I miss Mohammad Hasan, Mays and Omar,” he said, listing his friends’ names. They were all killed in the strike.
The ice cream shop was reduced to a heap of rubble. Dervish said he used to get vanilla and cherry flavored ice cream in a cone for 100 Syrian pounds ($1). The shop owner, he said, often gave them freebies.
“I’m sad that we don’t have the shop anymore and that my friends are dead,” Dervish said.
It is a scene that has played out across Syria for more than seven years. Idlib is one of several de-escalation zones agreed on by some of the war’s main international actors, Russia, Turkey and Iran. Yet it has been repeatedly bombed, with airstrikes target alleged rebel posts, medical facilities and residential neighborhoods.
Last rebel stronghold
The Syrian government swept through rebel-held areas over the past year. Many residents and fighters from across Syria were transferred to Idlib and the northern countrysides of nearby provinces as part of opposition agreements with the government. As a result, the population of the northwestern province has doubled since the start of the war, and it is a bastion of Syria’s opposition fighters.
But this is the last rebel stronghold, and the fighters and residents here have nowhere else to go.
There are also international interests regarding Idlib. Turkey is heavily involved here and insists it will protect the area against a government incursion. Still, the Russian-backed Syrian government has trained its sights on the province and seems intent on crushing the rebels. Fighting is incessant, and Idlib’s ultimate fate is unknown.
United Nations estimates put the population here at more than 3 million. Most live in camps along the border with Turkey, which already has taken in 3.5 million Syrian refugees since the start of the war. But the Turkish border is now effectively closed, with Ankara choosing to prevent another wave of refugees from crossing by building a border wall and bolstering aid to Idlib.
“We have sent in a lot of humanitarian aid, set up military observation points and have taken on diplomatic efforts to sustain this area,” said a senior Turkish official, who asked not to be named.
An assault on Idlib is a red line for Turkey. Negotiations are ostensibly under way between Russia, Iran and Turkey. But agreements are hard to come by in Syria. It plays host to many regional, local and international actors, each with its own shifting agendas.
Earlier this month, Syrian government planes dropped leaflets on the city of Jisr Al Shugur in Idlib.
“Your cooperation with the Syrian Arab Army will get rid of the armed terrorists among you and will keep you and your families safe,” the leaflet read.
For those who’d previously fled other opposition areas, this is an ominous sign. One activist, who was relocated to Idlib from Eastern Ghouta following a brutal government incursion there, said the leaflets were identical to ones he saw in Eastern Ghouta before a Russian and Syrian government assault overran the rebels there.
“I’m afraid the same thing will happen in Idlib,” he told CNN, asking for his name not to be quoted. People in Idlib know the violence is closing in on them, but no one sees an escape route.
An assault on Idlib would mean high casualties. The province is more tightly packed and more densely populated than other areas in the country.
Along the Turkish border, the white tents of the refugee camps have grayed with time. As residents build up concrete block walls and cement floors, the camps have taken on an air of permanence and transformed into sprawling slums. Shops selling wedding dresses, restaurants, and pharmacies have popped up.
For now, an uneasy calm has taken over.
Some of the first internally displaced people to move to Idlib’s tent cities live in a makeshift district called the Rahme Cluster.
Hishan Hadar, 48, originally from the adjacent Hama, has been here for five years.
“This area started out as tents, but then over time people managed to build it up,” he said.
He said the possibility of a Syrian regime operation leaves people in Idlib only one choice. “We have nothing to do but to defend. Either we die with honor, or we die with honor – there is no other choice,” he told CNN.
Others are even more resigned.
“There is no hope,” says Sara Shahin who, along with her five children, has been in Rahme for six years. Her children may never see their native Kafra Buda in the countryside of the northeastern province of Hama. Her eldest son hopes to be married soon.
“He might marry here… my kids will grow up here… I have a feeling we will be here till we die,” she said.
Around the corner, in what has been transformed into the town’s main street, Abdulkadir Halit, 25, has opened a barber shop after airstrikes destroyed his old shop in his native town of Hama.
“I would go back tomorrow if I could, and God willing, maybe I will,” he told CNN.
A few doors down, smoke from a tiny restaurant wafts into the street. Hasan Ali is turning skewers of chicken and tomatoes over slow-burning coal. The 38-year-old cook says he has no sense of what will become of him and his family, but the thought of never returning to his hometown in Hama is unfathomable.
“Pain. That’s what we feel. We left our home. What can we feel but pain?” he said while fanning the grill.
On the hills above the Rahme Cluster, children fly kites, old men reflect in a somber silence, and others revel in the open space. Vaciha Turki-Al Omar comes to the edge of a cliff and points out roughly where her tent is. Since the beginning of the war, this mother of eight has lost too many family members and loved ones to count.
The war brought with it a relentless move northward.
“We left because of airstrikes. Our home is gone, destroyed,” she said. “This place is our last hope.”
This story has been updated to correct the location of the village of Urem Kubra.