A government assault reduced the minaret of the mosque in Areha, Syria,… (Los Angeles Times )
AREHA, Syria — Five times a day, for 15 years, the muezzin made the call to prayer from the mosque's minaret, which rose high above the roofs of the modest homes surrounding it.
When soldiers, their tanks positioned throughout the city, asked him whether rebel fighters used the minaret, he told them, "I swear no one goes up there except for me."
But a few Sundays ago, when Areha was under near-constant bombardment, a shell slammed into the minaret, sending rocks and metal speakers crashing down onto the roof of the mosque and surrounding homes, where residents were hiding inside. That day no one was hurt in the neighborhood, but elsewhere in the town dozens were killed, activists said.
"They tried to hit it several times. The first time the shell fell here on the neighbor and the second and third time it fell on other neighbors and the fourth time they hit it," said Zaher, a local rebel fighter with a bandaged arm injury. "Their goal was to destroy the minaret."
Weeks later in this town at the foot of a mountain in the northwestern province of Idlib, much of the rubble is still where it fell, in the narrow alleyway below, on the roofs and in the houses, in the minaret, which used to stand more than 100 feet tall. Now it's been reduced to a third of that.
The regime of President Bashar Assad says that it has begun a gradual pullout from Idlib in accordance with a peace proposal brokered by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan. But activists and rebels in the province, which was pummeled by a government offensive last month, believe the opposite may be happening.
They believe that the peace plan's April 10 deadline has given the regime's forces added incentive to wreak as much havoc as possible in the coming days, said Ahmad Aasi, an activist in the region. Activists elsewhere described continued attacks Friday.
"By dealing with people in such a barbaric way, perhaps they believe the people will be convinced that they have no ability to fight off the regime," Aasi said.
As they brace for another attack, residents pick up the pieces.
In Areha's bazaar district, a shell blew the door of a dessert shop across the street. The metal awning was pockmarked with bullet holes.
Everything inside was destroyed: the pots and pans that once held sticky sweets, the counter and even the walls.
"We had money and products and it was all gone," the owner said as he retiled the walls.
He had yet to replace the shop's missing front, and the store sat like an open cavity on the street.
Several other shops that line Areha's once-busy central square had walls of cinder blocks replacing glass storefronts, in preparation for another onslaught. There was good reason.
Not 100 feet from the bazaar, two parked tanks spanned a side street. Their turrets were pointed in the direction of the shops.
Yusuf, an elderly man who used to live next to the mosque before his home was destroyed, indicated a neighbor's house. During an earlier shelling, they pulled two sisters from the rubble.
"Like a bunch of pigs they attacked Areha. There isn't a house here that they didn't hit," he said. "We left our house; we don't dare enter anymore."
Throughout the Idlib region, towns and villages are a semblance of what they once were. Whole neighborhoods are empty of women and children who have fled to the safety of Turkey.
Many of the butcher shops don't even bother opening anymore; few people are buying meat because they don't know whether they will be there long enough to cook it.
"The regime is in its final days, so it is trying to destroy as much as it can," said one rebel fighter from nearby Jabal al Zawiya.
In a mountain village at the top of a steep road above Areha, some homes bear the scars of shelling and others the marks of fire.
On an afternoon a few weeks ago, Abu Ayman and his family were sitting on the street when three shells smashed into an apartment above them.
The wall of that apartment's kitchen is now half gone, and pieces of cabinet, insulation and ceramics are piled on the floor. Parts of the home, owned by a well-to-do merchant who left town months earlier because of the danger, were difficult to navigate because of the heaps of rubble.
All the glass in the living room was broken, except for a chandelier still hanging from the ceiling, seemingly the one thing in the house undamaged.
"They are shelling randomly; they have no idea where it will land," Abu Ayman said.
In Sarmeen to the north, Um Ameen's home had been burned two weeks before, the acrid smell lingering in the two rooms where the walls had been turned a deep black. On that day, the army began shelling the village in the morning and by afternoon was raiding homes.
"I feared for my kids. My boys are not old, but their size makes them look older," the mother of five said, indicating her 14-year-old son standing nearby. "We heard lots of stories of boys being taken and shot."
The family fled before the offensive began. Fifteen soldiers broke into the house looking for weapons, a neighbor told her. When they didn't find any, they set fire to the house, pouring gasoline in the rooms to make the fire burn hotter.
"We heard the sounds of the tanks as we left," she said, holding a playful infant her lap. "When we came back, the rooms were like charcoal."