It was the day after the end of the offensive, and A Ghazal was helping to collect up the corpses. They were lined up on rugs inside a mosque, with pieces of paper identifying the victims.
Before showing the pictures that he took that day, the 26-year-old said: “You are going to be shocked.”
The pictures of the human remains from the attack on Taftanaz in April are indeed shocking – an endless catalogue of brutality. Many show the victims’ heads split open by the bullets that ended their lives. “They executed nine. Placed them up against a wall and shot them,” he said.
Some emerged from the rubble covered by a layer of white powder that gave them a disturbing appearance. The bodies of some, such as Saleh Ghazal, had been reduced to charred wrecks.
“This is what remained of five people,” said A Ghazal – whose full identity has been withheld for his safety – pointing at the computer screen, showing a mass of blackened flesh barely recognisable as human forms.
Ghazal documented the devastation that hit the village of 15,000 inhabitants. He took pictures of the hundreds of houses and businesses destroyed, of the 56 dead, and even of the battle as it was being fought.
“It was not easy [for the Syrian army]. They lost 10 tanks,” said Abu Muhammad, one of the leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army (SLA) in the enclave. “That’s why they wanted revenge.”
Vengeance struck with fury against the Ghazal clan, the largest in Taftanaz. Of the 56 dead, 39 were members of the family. “My family had six houses and a business in the market. They [the Syrian army] burned them all. They had lists of names. They came looking for members of the Ghazal family. It was pure revenge. They murdered, burned their houses with gasoline and crushed their cars with tanks,” said Ghazal.
A tour of Taftanaz lent credibility to the young man’s words. There were a number of houses whose interiors had been reduced to ashes while the exteriors remained intact. The town is partially abandoned. According to its residents, nearly 60% of the population has fled to Turkey or other villages in the surrounding area. Those who stayed behind have started to rebuild the ruined dwellings but many remain destroyed.
The threat posed by President Bashar al-Assad’s army can be seen just a few hundred metres away. Installed at the military airport on the outskirts of town, Ghazal collected in his office the last two rockets fired by the military helicopters that fly over the area every day.
Taftanaz was one of the places ravaged by the offensive launched by the Syrian army from 22 March to 6 April, which also left a trail of corpses and destruction in villages such as Sarmeen or Saraqeb, all in the northern province of Idlib. These attacks all seemed to follow the same pattern: an assault like that in the film Apocalypse Now, with helicopters firing on the villages, to cover the advance of long columns of tanks. The slaughter of the Ghazal family may have been a precedent for what happened in enclaves such as Hula, near Homs, and Qubair, near Hama.
However, the attack has not helped to control the insurgency in the province, where – just as in the Homs countryside – members of the FSA can be seen everywhere. Many of the towns and villages between the Turkish border and the city of Idlib are protected by controls operated by the insurgents. In others, the green, white and black “revolutionary” flag flies over the rooftops openly and decorates the walls of the streets.
“Bashar’s troops only control the towns of Idlib and Jisr-Shugur but even there they suffer daily attacks,” said Bassel Eissa, one of the more important leaders of the armed groups of Idlib. “The army’s troops have other positions – some controls that monitor the main roads and barracks or bases of Taftanaz airport – but they know they are surrounded.”
But the military power of the rebels remains limited. They may control the space left to them by the regime’s army, but near the town of Idlib their equipment has not improved substantially in the last six months. At one point the SLA members travelling with me had to be given an AK-47 because they had no weapons.
Perhaps the only novelty is the uniforms made by the rebels, who have attached small opposition flags to them. Their vehicles remain the same mix of used motorcycles and four-wheel-drives.
“All these statements from Saudi Arabia and Qatar about humanitarian or military aid are empty words,” said Dr Omar, a native of Idlib. “Some weapons have arrived but only just enough so that we can keep on fighting. Sometimes I wonder if the international community actually wants a war in which Bashar is weakened but does not fall. That would be the ideal scenario for Israel.”
A spokesman for the FSA, Colonel Malik al-Kurdi, told the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that his forces had still not received any significant military assistance from abroad and 70% of their weapons had been taken from government forces.
The militants returned to Taftanaz within hours of the army withdrawing. A week later, thousands of people demonstrated on the ruins left by the attack.
Similar protests could be seen in the villages surrounding Idlib. Together with another half-dozen people, Ahmed took to the streets on Wednesday night, calling for the “execution” of Assad.
“People are outraged by massacres like those in Hula or Hama. The Annan plan is history. The next step is total war,” said Mazen, a local engineer. As he spoke, al-Arabiya TV broadcast images of a demonstration in the city of Marat al-Numan, where thousands chanted: “War, we just want war.”
“The west knows that this regime will not be forced to give up killing by conversations or political agreements,” A Ghazal had said hours earlier in Taftanaz.
Assad’s opponents also made their intentions clear in graffiti on the walls of Taftanaz. They gave themselves a nickname whose message was clear: the Brigade of Death. Next to that were the words: “Assad, or we burn the country.”