A Syrian rebel rests in a storehouse in Idlib province. The government’s… (Giogos Moutafis, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Idlib, Syria — In a playground of slides and swings, children dug in the sand next to a string of simple dirt mounds that covered the bodies of at least 40 people.
The makeshift graves, which extended nearly from one end of the park to the other, held those killed in the last two weeks of government attacks on this capital of the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
"This park used to be for recreation and play. Now it has been turned into a cemetery," a grandmother said, wiping her eyes as she walked along the park's fence. Four members of her family are buried here.
With her was her granddaughter, no older than 10, whose father, mother and two siblings were killed when a shell slammed into their fourth-floor apartment in the hard-hit Shimali district, where opposition to President Bashar Assad is strong. The girl, light scars running down one side of her face, was the only survivor.
Two days after the army and its tanks pulled out of Idlib, leaving it in the hands of government security forces in pickup trucks with antiaircraft guns mounted on the back, shattered residents told of an onslaught marked by bouts of terror, wanton destruction behind closed doors and strange moments of kindness by soldiers.
The government advance on Idlib was part of a broader offensive that routed armed rebels from a number of Syrian cities, including parts of Homs in central Syria and Dair Alzour in the east. The government celebrated the triumphs as possible turning points in the uprising.
But the course of Syria's yearlong rebellion suggests that things could change again in Idlib. Assad's military is professional and well-equipped, but many reports from inside the country suggest the security forces are stretched thin, and some soldiers and officers wearying of their brutal task continue to defect. In the past, opposition activists and armed dissidents have been able to filter back once the tanks departed for the next mission.
For now, though, residents are on edge as they try to account for the losses of the last two weeks, aware that the offensive may not be over. Activists from the city estimated the death toll at 250, with only about 15 of those rebel fighters and the rest civilians. The number could not be verified.
In the Maarat Misreen roundabout, renamed the Freedom roundabout by activists, a few gunshots rang out Thursday morning. Residents walking through stopped and looked around for a second, but no one seemed to want to linger too long.
"They continuously shoot to keep people scared," said resident Um Widad, who, like others, wanted either to remain unidentified or be referred to by a nickname.
For days before the army entered the city two Saturdays ago, tanks positioned on the perimeter road shelled the town. Many feared that Shimali would become another Baba Amr, the Homs neighborhood that was destroyed in a month of shelling.
But unlike in Baba Amr, where few buildings seemed to escape the onslaught, much of the destruction in Shimali is hidden. In streets and alleyways, black soot spreading from windows and doorways and creeping along the sides of buildings indicates the ruin within.
On the day the army came in, disorganized rebel fighters attempted to beat back the offensive. By the third day, most of the rebels had withdrawn to the suburbs.
After that, soldiers began house-to-house raids and burned every house they claimed belonged to a rebel, residents said.
In one narrow alleyway, a ground-floor apartment was entirely charred inside. Near the entrance, the refrigerator lay on its side in melted pieces.
The apartment's owners, like most other residents, had fled the district, but a neighbor who lives across the alleyway refused to leave and watched as soldiers broke down the metal door.
More than 10 soldiers searched the apartment, she said, first carting off a TV, satellite dish and bags of rice and bulgur wheat before setting the home ablaze.
"I've never seen a fire start so quickly," she said. "We called the fire department, and they said they were given orders that if all of Idlib burns they will put out the fires except here in the Shimali district."
For a day the fire burned, even as a few residents doused it with water, the neighbor said.
"We have no one left but God," she said.
After the army pulled out Tuesday, government security forces searched homes again, not trusting the work of the soldiers, some of whom are sympathetic to the opposition, residents said.
Jenan, who works in the tourism industry, said that when soldiers searched her family's home last week, they treated them kindly and said, "Don't be afraid; we are your brothers."
The army had positioned two tanks on either side of the neighborhood and a sniper on a roof nearby, she said.
"You feel they are in a tough situation; you feel sorry for them," she said. "A few of the soldiers picked up the young children and kissed them. I think they missed their own children."