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Russia-backed offensive in Syria leaves nearly a million homeless, desperate

Salaam Times and AFP

A video uploaded to social media in November shows Syrian civilians hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks at Russian military vehicles patrolling areas the Kremlin is attempting to occupy. Anger against Moscow's brutal tactics in Syria and elsewhere is growing.

DAMASCUS -- Mustafa and Ines were helping their parents load the van once again to flee advancing Russia-backed Syrian troops, when bombardment hit the area and sowed panic on the street.

The 12-year-old boy flinched and leapt onto the truck stacked with rugs and mattresses, followed by his 10-year-old sister, her face contorted by fear.

The scene has become routine for residents of northwestern Syria, where Russian-backed government troops have been conducting a devastating offensive to flush rebels out of their last bastion.

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A displaced Syrian girl rides in the back of a truck on the way to Deir al-Ballut camp in Syria on February 19, after a Russia-backed offensive. [Rami al-Sayed/AFP]

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Wounded Syrian children receive treatment at a makeshift hospital following a Russian air strike on Idlib, Syria, February 11. [Abdulaziz Ketaz/AFP]

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A Syrian rebel readies himself before firing rockets at Russian-backed militias in northwest Syria on February 20. [File]

The government and its Russian ally have made major gains since December, prompting 900,000 Syrians to flee their homes and shelters in the thick of winter in the biggest displacement of civilians of the nearly nine-year conflict.

Sixty percent of that number are women and children, estimates the United Nations (UN)'s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

There is also a growing body of evidence that Russian warplanes deliberately bomb hospitals in Syria to undermine the Syrian opposition.

The Kremlin's deadly operations aimed at expanding its territorial occupation of Syria have met fierce and angry resistance from locals.

In one of the most intense signs of growing unrest, a video posted on social media in mid-November showed Syrians hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks at Russian military vehicles patrolling areas that the Kremlin was attempting to occupy.

"Our life boils down to this now -- bombs and fear," said the children's father, Abu Mohammed.

The town of Daret Ezza lies west of Syria's second city, Aleppo, and close to the border with Turkey, which remains firmly closed.

It was only a month ago that, forced on the road by a previous phase of the offensive, he washed up in this hilly region still controlled by the rebels.

The man in his 50s is originally from the south of Idlib Province, which the government forces retook weeks ago, at the beginning of their push north.

"We're scared for our children; this is what leads us to leave every time," Abu Mohammed said.

Worsening conditions

To live in Daret Ezza, his family had to rent a single-room workshop with blackened walls, separated from the concrete yard by nothing but a torn plastic sheet.

"This is what we could afford," Abu Mohammed said.

The family spent the winter coughing and sneezing, he said.

In some mountain areas of Idlib and neighbouring Aleppo Province, the temperature dipped to minus 7 Celsius and several children have died of exposure.

As an estimated three million Syrians, half of them children, get cornered in an ever shrinking enclave, as aid groups warn of an unprecedented humanitarian emergency.

"The situation is getting worse," said the father. "Fear is growing; we can't calm the children down when they hear a jet or a bomb."

Hiding under a black winter coat and a green woolly hat, Ines ia the most traumatised of Abu Mohammed's four children.

"She freezes completely when the bombardment starts," her father said.

"I block her ears and tell her, 'Don't be scared; it's far away. There won't be strikes'. But still she screams and cries," he said.

At night she sleeps with her head under the pillow, so as not to hear the warplanes passing overhead.

Russia rejects ceasefire pleas

Even as the truck got ready to move, Abu Mohammed was not sure where his family would sleep next.

"We might spend the night with a cousin who took a tent as he left," he said.

Abu Mohammed said they would head towards Azaz, a town considered safer because it lies on the Turkish border.

The truck is so packed that some will have to endure the ride balancing on top of the pile of mattresses in the back.

A stove, a sewing machine and some cooking pots had to be left behind.

A moving video of a father teaching his three-year-old daughter to treat air strikes and shelling as a game was widely shared on social media this week, drawing more attention to the plight of children in the conflict.

At least seven children have died since December from the cold or bad living conditions in the camps for the displaced, according to Save the Children.

Most of the nearly one million Syrians displaced by the offensive on Idlib are women and children, who often have to burn furniture or whatever they can find to keep warm.

The UN has called for a ceasefire to help tackle what it has warned could become the worst humanitarian disaster of the war.

But on Wednesday (February 19), Russia, an ally of the Syrian regime, unsurprisingly blocked a ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council.

170,000 living out in the open

An estimated 170,000 of the 900,000 civilians forced from their homes in a massive wave of displacement in northwestern Syria are living out in the open, the UN said Thursday (February 20).

The largest displacement since the civil war in Syria broke out nearly nine years ago comes in the thick of winter, with temperatures often dipping below 0 degree Celsius and snow covering some districts.

"Harsh winter conditions further aggravate the suffering of these vulnerable people who fled their homes to escape the violence, most of whom have been displaced multiple times over nine years of conflict," the UN said.

About a fifth of the newly displaced are sleeping rough, said UN OCHA in its latest update.

"Almost 170,000 of those newly displaced people are estimated to be living in the open or in unfinished buildings," it said.

Camps sheltering some of the rest are overstretched and many families are pitching tents on plots with no access to basic services such as latrines, added the UN.

A ceasefire is needed to avert a humanitarian disaster on a scale yet unseen in the Syria war, said Mark Lowcock, the UN's top humanitarian co-ordinator.

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For God’s sake, don’t say how Iran and Russia oppress civilians in Syria, but why don't you say how Saudi Arabia uses religion and Schools of law to promote violence.

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