Syrians in the town of Azaz had started to think of a future free of President Bashar al-Assad. Their plans for local elections next week offered a glimpse of the democracy they hoped would replace the Assad family’s 40 years in power.
That all changed in a few minutes on Wednesday when Assad’s air force unleashed a bombardment that killed at least 35 people – a brutal reminder for the people of this town near the Turkish border of the force the president could still wield.
“How can I describe the sense of depression that has overcome this town? I feel like the earth, the trees, the sky are weeping for us,” said Sheikh Walid Abu al-Baraa, a local mosque preacher, who spent all night helping to bury the dead, Reuters reports.
The Azaz air strike was the latest to target towns where Assad’s authority has withered in the face of a 17-month-old uprising.
Azaz residents say Assad could not reach them with his ground forces. So he was using air power to punish them for the fighters and supplies they had sent to the revolt. His aim, they said, was to force rebels fighting in cities like Aleppo to surrender by hitting their families back home.
“They want us to force the (rebel) Free Syrian Army … to withdraw and come back home … But that will never happen,” said school teacher Abu Mohammed al-Azizi.
Residents in Tel Rifaat, in the countryside north of Aleppo, gave the same explanation for air strikes there last week.
On August 9, Reuters journalists saw a jet fire rockets at the farming village, where the previous day at least six people had been pulled dead from the rubble of a house the villagers said had also been hit from the air.
Washington has said it has noted an increasing use of air power in the conflict but U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta suggested on Tuesday the Pentagon was not seriously considering a no-fly zone similar to the one that helped Libyan rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi.
GATEWAY TO TURKEY
In Azaz, men were still pulling bodies out of the rubble into the early hours of Thursday morning. The Free Syrian Army organized buses to evacuate terrified residents to Turkey.
Rebels took control of Azaz on July 22, locals say. For a while, it became a safe haven for Syrians forced from other parts of the country and a gateway over the porous border into Turkish.
“Azaz is a great player in rural Aleppo because it is strategically close to Turkey. This is where refugees leave from. This is where ammunition and weapons are smuggled through to support the Free Syrian Army rebels fighting in Aleppo,” said Sheikh Abu al-Baraa, the mosque preacher.
In hands caked with mud from burying the dead, he grasped two pieces of paper bearing the names and ages of the people he had just laid to rest.
Seventeen of the bodies could not be identified. “Some of these graves just have body parts that we couldn’t identify – arms, hands, feet, just pieces of bodies,” said Abu al-Baraa, his clerical robe covered in dirt.
An entire neighborhood was destroyed in Wednesday’s attack. At least 20 homes were leveled. The entire side of one building had been sliced off exposing the rooms inside. A toilet hung precariously from a pipe and chairs teetered near the edge.
A bulldozer dug through the concrete and rubble, helped by men using their bare hands. The dead included three children, one no more than a year old. Their bodies were quickly wrapped in blankets and taken to hospital.
Copies of the Koran lay smeared in blood on the ground.
“AZAZ STARTED TO FEEL SAFE”
Grown men broke down, sobbing and holding their heads in their hands. A woman rocked back and forth as she absorbed the news that her sister’s family of 10 had all been killed.
“I buried 10 people with these hands,” one man told Reuters, his eyes bloodshot from weeping and his hair and beard caked with white dust from clearing rubble.
Away from the blast site, the force of the attack had twisted metal shop shutters and smashed windows, scattering shards of glass across the town’s main commercial street.
After night prayers, volunteers used the mosque’s loudspeakers to announce evacuation plans. Instead of gathering for tea with neighbors, as is traditional in the last few days of the holy Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, the people of Azaz were getting ready to leave.
“Any families wishing to go to Turkey must meet at the mosques now,” the loudspeakers declared. Soon after, men began readying their families for the journey, packing what little belongings they could into the buses organized by the Free Syrian Army.
“Azaz started to feel safe and comfortable after it was freed from Assad forces,” said Sheikh Abu al-Baraa.
“People from Aleppo and other villages came here to feel safe and this doesn’t suit the Assad regime, so they wanted to terrorize us and hit us where it hurts most – our homes and families.”