Zaheda al-Hussain, 56, is like hundreds of thousands of others who are part of a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in northwestern Syria — the scale of which even the United Nations failed to foresee.
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“I prayed, I asked God that we all die together,” the 56-year-old grandmother told NBC News.
“The regime and Russians killed millions of Syrians — let us be the next.”As Russian-backed Syrian government forces accelerated their campaign to retake the Idlib province — the country’s last rebel stronghold — al-Hussain was forced to flee her rural village of Ma’ar Shoreen.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has said it received reports that at least nine children and three teachers were killed as 10 schools and kindergartens came under attack in Idlib on Tuesday.
As the front lines grow closer, many are pushing north toward the border with Turkey. But that has been closed to Syrian refugees since 2015.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pull back to previously agreed positions by the end of the month.
Erdogan has threatened that his forces will intervene unless they do so.In recent weeks, Ankara has beefed up its presence in the region sending hundreds of military vehicles and troops into Idlib province, according to The Associated Press.
Erdogan’s primary objective in Idlib is to ensure that there is not another large flow of Syrian refugees across the border, analysts have told NBC News. The country is already struggling with the3.6 million Syrian refugees it currently hosts.
“I do not know what will happen to us if the Syrian army takes over the border,” said al-Hussain, who has lost three sons in nearly nine years of war and has been left to care for four of her grandchildren.
She added that she would not live under the rule of Assad.”He killed my children and destroyed Syria,” she said. “I’d rather die.
“After months of heavy bombardment, resentment toward the Syrian leader runs deep in Idlib — a region roughly the size of Delaware.
Once famous for its olive groves, the province was home to some 3 million people before the latest wave of violence.
Now, those trees are being used for shelter and an estimated 2.8 million people in northwest Syria require humanitarian assistance, according to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.
Al-Hussain, who was wearing a dark head scarf printed with a cascade of white flowers, spoke to NBC News in a camp on the road north to Turkey.
“We became a number,” she said earlier this month. “Now we are tent No. 6.”Even having a tent makes al-Hussain and her grandchildren luckier than some.
According to the latest U.N. estimates, there are currently more than 4 million civilians in northwest Syria — more than half of whom have been forced to flee several times. Some 80 percent of the newly displaced are women and children and numerous elderly people are also at risk.
Many have been forced to seek shelter in other people’s homes, abandoned buildings or even under Idlib’s famous olive trees.
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