On Triumphant Day for Syrian Rebels, Tragedy in One Small Town

A TIME correspondent sends in a dispatch from a town in the restive northern Syrian province of Idlib. On a day when rebels managed to kill four top figures in the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, there were reminders that the country's civil war is far from over.

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Shaam News Network / Reuters

Members of the Free Syrian Army are seen in Kafr Takharim, on the outskirts of Idlib July 17, 2012.

Abdel-ilah, the painter, was hysterical. He fell to his knees in front of a small base of rebel fighters, and unfurled the small blood-covered white blanket with pale blue stripes he was carrying. “People, people, dear God, somebody, anybody look what they have done! Look! dear God, oh my God!” The fighters, most carrying their rifles, ran out of their makeshift base, as others quickly gathered at the site.

(MORE: Syrian rebels celebrate assassination of Assad lieutenants.)

Inside the bundle was a young girl, Suheila. She was a toddler, barefoot, with patches of blood on her pudgy legs, still dressed in a blue t-shirt and white shorts. She didn’t have facial features because she no longer had a face. Her head was smashed, a blob of flesh and blood.

Just minutes earlier, at around 11pm, a rocket landed on her family home, killing the young toddler, her brother and her mother as well as her two aunts and another woman from the family. “She’s not the only one!” Abdel-Ilah screamed. “Allahu Akbar!” He had picked up the child from her home. The young fighters urged him to wrap up the little girl and head to the town’s hospital.

“Shabab, be careful, don’t all gather in the same place!” somebody said, referring to the rebel fighters milling around. Abdel-Ilah jumped on the back of a motorcycle and sped away with the dead toddler. The two dozen or so fighters sat on the sidewalk. Most looked dejected. None of them spoke.

It was a stark, sharp contrast to the buoyant mood just hours earlier when many of the same young men proudly paraded around town, firing their precious ammunition in the air in an impromptu celebration of an audacious rebel attack in the capital Damascus that left the defense minister, interior minister and Assef Shawkat, a powerful regime insider and President Bashar Assad’s brother in law dead.

(MORE: What the Assad regime lost in the devastating Damascus blast.)

The little girl was taken to the town’s Hassan Hospital. It was pandemonium inside. Pools of blood congealed on the tiled floor. The toddler’s mother, Sakina, lay dead on a stretcher, her deep red clothes soaked in bright red blood. Young men screamed “Allah uh Akbar!” in sorrow and anger. One swept up body bits from the floor. Another child in a long lilac shirt lay on the tiles. Her right arm was bandaged. Her eyes were open but she looked dead. She was not. With great effort she gingerly raised her left hand, and made the V for victory sign.

The young fighters, meanwhile, were preparing their own response to the nighttime attack.  The rebels have bought the fight to Damascus, to Assad’s doorstep, in a powerful show of force and prowess, but in other parts of Syria the fight remains vastly asymmetrical. While cracks are showing in the once invulnerable Assad regime, the rebels, at least in one corner of Syria, have the odds still stacked up against them.

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