After months of fighting, the regime’s men finally abandoned this strategic crossroads.
President Bashar al Assad’s troops left behind a bullet-riddled ghost town patrolled by rebels and a handful of shell-shocked residents.
Fighters had renamed the stretch of the Bab el Hawa highway, which ran through the center of town, the “Street of Death.” Until recently, they said anyone who dared set foot on it became a target.
A mini-graveyard of burned-out armored personnel carriers sat next to the main municipal building, which served as a base for government soldiers. Several weeks after rebels captured the town, the building’s walls were still decorated with pro-regime graffiti proclaiming frightening ultimatums: “Either Bashar or we’ll burn this city” and “Bashar or nothing.”
“This used to be a very classy area. … The Turks would come here to see our village,” said a fighter named Abdullah Behri, who was treated in a hospital in nearby Turkey after losing his left eye to shrapnel during a battle here last May.
“Now it has all turned to hell,” he said, pointing at the town’s deserted streets.
Locals said they used to travel from the surrounding countryside to shop at the Atareb market. It straddles the Bab el Hawa highway, roughly halfway between the Turkish border and the Syrian commercial capital Aleppo, located only 20 miles away.
Though rebels appeared to control Atareb, the fight in the surrounding countryside was still far from over.
The commander of the local rebel brigade, Ahmed el Faj, was killed on Friday along with at least 11 of his fighters, rebels said, during a botched attack on a nearby regime-controlled police school. Three days later, rebels said they were still waiting for a government hospital to release Faj’s body, so that they could hold a proper burial.
And residents and fighters said the town still came under daily fire from nearby artillery.
“There is a military base about 6 kilometers away, and it shells us with artillery every day,” said a resident named Abdul Sayyid, whose restaurant lay in ruins due to the fighting. There also hadn’t been any electricity or running water in Atareb in months.
Much of the damage in town was focused around the main municipal building.
Soldiers had converted offices for running the town’s bureaucracy into a military outpost.
They fortified the rooftop with sniper’s nests that were clearly used to rain bullets on the surrounding neighborhood, judging by the bullet-holes that pock-marked surrounding buildings.
They also scrawled graffiti on the walls proudly declaring “We are the men of the special operations unit.” In one hallway, they built a crude hearth out of bricks for cooking, and even left behind skewers used to grill meat.
Residents told stories of atrocities, allegedly carried out by the security forces.
An elderly woman who asked to only be called “Um Abdulazim” for security reasons, wept as she described how troops arrested, tortured, and then killed her 24-year-old son Qusay.
“My son was handicapped, and they ran a plow over his legs. They killed him and threw him into the street,” she said, pointing to her head, chest, arm and hips were she said Qusay was shot.
Um Abdulazim said the soldiers punished her family for providing food and shelter to anti-government demonstrators.
“He was handicapped.” Referring to Bashar al Assad, she said, “I hope his mother loses him. … I hope he loses his sons.”
With the government’s forces gone, rebels now filled the security vacuum.
During a brief visit, gunshots suddenly rang out when a prisoner briefly broke free from a group of rebels.
“Don’t kill me, for god’s sake. Please don’t kill me. For god’s sake, pardon me,” the man screamed as fighters wrestled him back to their pickup truck.
Later, rebels said the man was a looter who would be brought before a local legal council that has assumed security responsibilities in the opposition-controlled region.
CNN journalists never saw what ultimately happened to the prisoner.