Civil Defense first responders at the Millis Hospital on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Matia Jalal.

AMMAN: “Here’s what happens when a vacuum bomb hits its target,” Matia Jalal, the spokesman for the Idlib Civil Defense, told Syria Direct.

“The destructive force of the blast is massive, but it's the resulting vacuum-like pressure that is enough to bring down a building.”

A little less than a year ago, a vacuum bomb—a munitions device which releases a long-sustained blast wave followed by a powerful vacuum that draws the air and surrounding debris back towards the explosion site—detonated near Jalal.

“It felt like my body was being torn apart,” he explained on Sunday. “The room next to me came crashing to the ground from the pressure of the blast. Nothing at all remained except for ashes on the floor.”

On Saturday, Jalal returned to an all-too-familiar scene after four reportedly Russian-fired vacuum bombs destroyed a Doctors Without Borders (MSF)-supported hospital in the Idlib countryside, killing at least 13 people, including four hospital staff, multiple eyewitnesses told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Syria Direct cannot independently confirm the use of vacuum bombs, also known as thermobaric weapons, on the hospital.

The attack on the Hope Hospital—located in the town of Millis, 18km west of Idlib city—indefinitely shut down the facility’s operations. The initial blast and resulting fires destroyed the hospital’s pharmaceutical warehouse, vital medical equipment and a fuel depot and caused significant structural damage to the building.

  Millis Hospital after the August 6 bombing. Photo courtesy of Matia Jalal.

Doctors Without Borders did not immediately comment on the attack.

Once serving between 250-300 patients daily, the destruction of the Hope Hospital means that the 70,000 residents of Millis and the surrounding 18 villages have few, if any, alternatives.

“Simply put, it was the most important hospital in the area,” Civil Defense spokesman Matia Jalal added.

As Civil Defense first responders continue to pull survivors and victims from underneath the rubble—including a nurse, ambulance driver and hospital guard—there is fear that the death toll will continue to rise.

“There are some very serious emergency cases, and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure they can get to hospitals at the Turkish border,” Civil Defense first responder Ahmed a-Sheikh told Syria Direct on Sunday.

“The nearby field hospitals simply won’t cut it,” he added.

Saturday’s bombing is the first airstrike on Millis since the start of the more than five-year civil war. Though the bombs have momentarily stopped falling, local residents—fearing a second strike—are quickly evacuating the town.

“Families are fleeing with their children to the nearby caves because they know that another attack could be just around the corner,” Idlib activist Abu Ahmed al-Idlibi told Syria Direct on Sunday.

The attack caps a bloody weekend in Idlib in which more than 40 airstrikes—12 of which allegedly included internationally banned cluster bombs—ravaged the province, the Civil Defense reported on their Facebook page.