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2 months later, massacre haunts Syrian town

In a Tuesday, June 5, 2012 photo, Syrian Abu Eissa Ghazzal, 75, walks next to a house that was burned during a military operation by the Syrian army in April 2012, in the town of Taftanaz, 15 kilometers east of Idlib, Syria. At dawn on April 3, Syrian forces shelled the town in the first volley of what residents say was a massive assault after a string of large protests calling for the end of the autocratic rule of President Bashar Assad. In a Tuesday, June 5, 2012 photo, Syrian Abu Eissa Ghazzal, 75, walks next to a house that was burned during a military operation by the Syrian army in April 2012, in the town of Taftanaz, 15 kilometers east of Idlib, Syria. At dawn on April 3, Syrian forces shelled the town in the first volley of what residents say was a massive assault after a string of large protests calling for the end of the autocratic rule of President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
By Ben Hubbard
Associated Press / June 18, 2012
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TAFTANAZ, Syria—The main street of this once-bustling Syrian farm town now stands eerily quiet, its shops charred black from arson, its shoppers replaced by cats roaming the rubble of homes destroyed by tank fire.

At dawn on April 3, Syrian forces shelled the town in the first volley of what residents say was a massive assault after a string of large protests calling for the end of the regime of President Bashar Assad. Soldiers then stormed in, torching homes and businesses and gunning down residents in the streets. By the time they left on the third day, at least 62 people were dead.

Two months later, the destruction remains, but most residents are gone. Locals estimate that about two-thirds of the town's 15,000 people have left. Most don't expect them to return.

"There is nothing for people to come back to, and they worry that if they rebuild, the army will destroy it again," said resident Bassam Ghazzal, who lost more than 20 members of his extended family in the attack. "People don't want to become refugees twice."

The destruction in Taftanaz, seen by an Associated Press reporter, provides an on-the-ground example of the huge price paid by Syrian communities that have chosen to defy one of the Middle East's most brutal autocracies.

Since the start of the anti-Assad uprising in March 2011, the regime has responded to unrest with brute force, dispatching snipers, troops and tanks to quash dissent. Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since, many of them civilians.

In general, the violence has not stopped the uprising, emboldening protesters, galvanizing international condemnation and leading many in the opposition to take up arms.

Taftanaz tells a different story. It is a place where overwhelming force appears to have not only crushed a burgeoning protest movement but struck a blow against a community that may never recover.

In many ways, Taftanaz, a jumble of simple concrete homes surrounded by golden wheat fields some 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the northern city of Idlib, tells the story of Syria's uprising, writ small.

Residents had long complained of state neglect and corruption that left many living in poverty, Ghazzal said. So when protesters inspired by the successful uprisings against autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria, they followed along, first demonstrating for change in April 2011.

Local security officers quickly ended the protest, but the town organized more, sparking further crackdowns and arrest campaigns by regime authorities, Ghazzal said.

The Syrian army raided the village three times in the next four months, Ghazzal said. During a June raid, Ghazzal's cousin was shot dead at a regime checkpoint while trying to flee, making him the first of the town's "martyrs."

Others followed. Some in the town took up arms, and an October clash between the army and local rebels killed five residents. Other residents buried them and held another protest the same day, Ghazzal said.

Then all was quiet until April 3, when tanks shelled the town from four sides before armored cars brought in dozens of soldiers who dragged civilians from their homes and gunned them down in the streets, witnesses said. The soldiers also looted, destroyed and torched hundreds of homes, bringing some down on their owners' heads.

Videos shot at the time show tanks posted near the town's entrance and huge columns of smoke rising throughout the area. Photos of the dead show bodies torn apart by shrapnel, charred by fire, crushed under rubble or with bullet holes in their chests, foreheads and temples.

Local activist Abdullah Ghazzal, a university student in English, says 62 people were killed during the attack, four of them burned beyond recognition. Two others have never been found.

Residents are unsure what sparked the assault. The town had only a small rebel presence, though fighters from the area had killed soldiers at nearby checkpoints or destroyed regime tanks, said local fighter Sahir Schaib. Rebels also blew up nine regime tanks as they left the town, mostly with homemade bombs planted along the roads.

He suspects the regime sought to stop the town from emerging as a protest center, especially since it is near a military base.

"There were lots of villages around that had just started protesting and they wanted to say, `This is what we can do to you,'" Schaib said. "They committed the massacre to teach the whole region a lesson."

The Syrian government rarely comments on its military actions and blames the uprising on armed terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy. It bars most reporters from working in the country, and the AP was able to visit Taftanaz only after entering from a neighboring country.

The price of Taftanaz's defiance is obvious around town. Homes have been reduced to rubble. Most shops along the town's main street are shuttered, their thick metal doors scarred by shrapnel and gunfire. Black soot lines the windows of others. Yet others lie collapsed in piles of bricks and mortar.

"They took what they took and burned what they burned," said Abu Eissa Ghazzal, 75, another member of the extended Ghazzal family. Standing near his torched grocery store on the ground floor of a three-story building, he despaired for the future.

"They didn't leave me a single nail," he said.

His younger brother had built the building after working for two decades in Saudi Arabia and lived with his family in the top two floors, Ghazzal said. Now all had been torched, and his brother and family had fled to a refugee camp in Turkey.

His older brother lived across the alley and refused to leave his home when the army came. When the attack was over, rescue teams found the 81-year-old man's body still in his home, burned to a crisp.

"Now there is nobody left," he said. "Who is going to rebuild all of this, now that all of those with children have left?"

The army has not returned since the April raid. Local activists still organize protests, though many fewer people attend, and rumors of impending military incursions often terrify residents.

Most of the dead rest in a long mass grave on the village's east side, their names scrawled in marker on cinder block headstones. Preceding most names is the honorific "hero martyr." One inscription for the unidentified bodies reads simply "four people."

"Most of them were my friends," said Abdullah Ghazzal, the English student, walking among the graves. He pointed out the grave of his 44-year-old brother, shot dead that day.

"They also burned down his house," he said.

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