MAARET AL-NUMAN/SYRIA: Sitting inside his bulldozer in embattled northwest Syria, civil defense worker Bassel Al-Rihani quietly maneuvers a giant shovel through red earth to dig a grave for whoever is killed next.
The Idlib region of some 3 million people has suffered increased regime and Russian airstrikes in recent weeks, with hundreds of civilians killed since late April.
To keep up, civil defense workers known as the White Helmets are digging graves in advance, to ensure funerals are swift and the few who attend are not killed at the cemetery.
“We’re digging graves, preparing them, we don’t even know for who,” said the gravedigger in the town of Maaret Al-Noman, which has been repeatedly hit by bombardment in recent weeks.
“We could be digging one for me, my brother, my father, my friend — God only knows,” said the 25-year-old father of five.
Using a bulldozer allows him to finish a grave in less than 10 minutes, he explained, instead of toiling away for up to three hours at risk from jets in the sky.
“We get them ready so when there are war planes all over, we can bury people as fast as possible, because often cemeteries are targeted,” Rihani said.
Idlib, one of the last regions in war-torn Syria to resist regime control, is supposed to be protected by a September buffer zone deal co-signed by regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.
But a spike in air raids, shelling, and rocket fire by the regime and Russia has since late April hit the region.
Idlib has been dominated since January by an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
The violence has killed more than 360 civilians, including 80 children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says, and caused tens of thousands to flee their homes.
On Monday, Mohammad Turman, 21, buried his two-year-old daughter Fatima.
The young father was out buying vegetables when a regime air raid hit his family home in the village of Maar Shureen.
He rushed home and extracted Fatima from the rubble, but she died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
Turman brought her home to clean her body, and allow the family to say a prayer.
“We buried her quickly. We weren’t even able to say goodbye properly,” he said. “There were very few of us. People were too scared of the planes.”
Back in Maaret Al-Noman, Rihani said funerals today are much simpler and smaller than before the eight-year war.
Today, there is little money to spend on proper tombs and hardly anyone dares venture out to pay their respects.
“Before the war, half the town would turn up if someone was buried, but now it’s just four to five relatives,” the rescue worker said.
Victims are sometimes unrecognizable — burned, or torn to pieces — and often buried en masse, different generations of the same family together.
Rihani said he was once burying a close friend’s nephew after he was killed in an airstrike, when someone ran up urging him to stop. The nephew’s father had died of his wounds and should be buried with him, he was told.
“I’d been digging a single grave, but then I had to make it wider to fit both father and son,” Rihani said.
Outside the village of Kafr Aweid last week, a dozen men gathered to bury their loved ones on the edge of a field of tall dry grass.
Residents were supposed to mark the holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, but instead airstrikes and shelling by regime forces had hit the town, killing 10 civilians.
By a deep burial pit, one man comforted another, his face contorted with emotion and his long robe streaked with dried blood.
Under a tree, one family cradled a small, blood-stained cardboard box.
Inside lay the scant remains of four-year-old Yamen, including the little boy’s dust-covered head.
Yamen’s grandfather sat legs sprawled on the ground, stooped over the precious package.
“Where is humanity? Have they no conscience?” he cried, gesturing toward the sky.
Nearby, men interred bodies wrapped in blankets, each grave sealed off with slim concrete blocks.
The large metal blade of a bulldozer then dropped mounds of fresh earth over their tombs, laying them to rest.