The battle started at 6 p.m. on Thursday. For several hours beforehand, the men of several Free Syrian Army units as well as members of the separate Salafi Ahrar al-Sham brigades operating in this town of 40,000 were busy preparing for the fight. The target was the Kaban checkpoint along the Aleppo-Damascus highway, one of four loyalist outposts ringing Saraqeb.
The young rebels in this town in central Idlib province had been preparing for days for what they feared would be an imminent attack by loyalist tanks and troops surrounding them.
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But things changed on Wednesday, after the deaths of several senior regime figures in an audacious attack by the Free Syrian Army in the capital Damascus. Armed men, many in pick-up trucks, paraded through the town’s main street in impromptu celebrations, shooting their limited ammunition into the air. The crackle of gunfire intermingled with the cries of Allah u Akbar, or God is Great, blaring from the town’s mosques. “Your leaders are dead. You are our brothers! Join us!” a call from the mosque said. “We will open our homes to you.”
There was a sense of invincibility, or perhaps inevitability, spurred by news flashes pouring in via Arabic satellite channels about mass defections from the regime elsewhere in Syria, and about checkpoints being overrun and their precious booty of tanks, weapons and ammunition falling into rebel hands. “What is wrong with us? Why haven’t we done anything yet,” said one young activist, Ahmad, as he watched the news. “Is it real? Is it really almost over?” asked a young FSA fighter who took up arms a year ago. “I’m so sick of guns, bullets, bombs.”
He didn’t have to wait long for his answer. Later that night, just before 11 p.m., a rocket landed near the Brek family home, killing a little girl, her brother and her mother as well as her two aunts and another woman from her family.
Perhaps it was bravado, perhaps it was a sense that the regime was on the back foot, or perhaps it was just a desire to end a drawn-out conflict that had left townsfolk weary, and even little girls able to differentiate the sound of a sniper bullet from other forms of gunfire. Whatever the reason, the rebels of Saraqeb were determined to take out the Kaban Checkpoint on Thursday. There were overnight negotiations (over the phone) with loyalist troops reportedly negotiating their defections. By early Thursday morning, a first lieutenant and 11 soldiers were supposedly ready to switch sides.
Then the regime struck back in earnest. The first tank shell landed on the home of a regime supporter, eliciting smug reactions from many of the young men gathered outside an FSA outpost in one of the town’s schools. That turned into peals of laughter when one man drove the white fire truck up the street to put out a small fire near his own home. “He’s not from the fire department,” said Abu Ahmad. “It’s self service,” he said, using the English term.
Intense gunfire suddenly erupted. The thud of mortars pounded positions within the town. A helicopter circled overhead before unloading several rockets into a residential area called the northern neighborhood. The power and cell phone service was out, but an hour into the battle several young activists fired up a generator, hooked up an internet connection and called nearby FSA units via Skype asking for help. “Listen brother, the power is out here so the line might cut out. We need RPGs, two, three as many as you have. Brother, it’s a very difficult situation now, mortars, tanks and there’s a helicopter now too. Whoever can come, come.”
Men sped through empty streets on motorbikes, some slinging RPGs and AK-47s on their shoulders. They ferried the wounded to the town’s hospitals, car horns blaring to clear the way of the few curious pedestrians who had ventured out of their homes. Most families sought refuge in homes that had basements.
“The rockets are killing us,” said Fady, a fighter in full military camouflage, AK-47 between his legs, as he drove along a street at breakneck speed toward the Hassan Hospital. “Except for the day that the army entered the town (on March 24), this is the first time that we see this kind of shelling.”
Dozens of men stood outside the Hassan Hospital, waiting to receive the wounded. A lightly wounded man was carried in on a stretcher, a minute later, the men outside the hospital were screaming for a stretcher. Then for more stretchers as five cars unloaded their bloodied passengers. A man covered in black ash and bleeding profusely was carried in on an orange stretcher. Within minutes more than a dozen wounded were ferried in by armed men. One died on the street outside the hospital. His bright red blood formed a pool on the asphalt, as the sad, angry frantic crowd around him cried out “God is Great!”
“Tell the people that there is no more room here!” a man yelled from the hospital steps. “Send them to Shifa (hospital).”
But the cars kept coming, disgorging the wounded. Bloodied bodies were carried in even as others were carried out of the hospital, mainly of the dead. Grown men cried openly. Bloodied footprints covered the tiled floor of the hospital. A few women standing on the hospital steps were crying hysterically.
A woman in a striped burgundy and navy floor-length, long-sleeved dress made her way up the few broad steps to the hospital entrance. “Where is Saddam?” she screamed to anyone, to everyone. The hospital foyer was full of armed men, many of whom had ferried their colleagues as well as wounded civilians. The woman turned from one man to the other, screaming out the same question – “Where is Saddam?”
“I have lost his father today, I cannot lose him too! I want my son!” She could barely stand. Two fighters propped her up, preventing her from collapsing on the blood-soaked hospital floor. She walked up stairs, down stairs, opened every door. “Saddam is fine,” somebody tried to tell her. “Then show him to me, where is he!” she said.
She seized on Khaled, a tall middle-aged fighter with graying hair, strapped in a black ammunition vest, with an AK slung across his back. “Where is he?” she yelled at him, grabbing him by his black vest. Khaled did not respond. He could not even look at her. She slapped him. “Where is my son!” He turned away from the mother, forlorn, distraught, deeply troubled.
Her son had been killed but he could not tell her. [UPDATE: Khaled turned out to be mistaken. Saddam had suffered a head wound, was unconscious and thought to be dead. But he survived.]
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There was no room inside the bloodied consulting and operating rooms. Two children, a little girl in purple track pants, her head bandaged, and her younger brother, also covered in bandages were walked out of the hospital. They were both covered in a smooth soft dust. They, like so many others, were quickly patched up and ferried out to make way for the stream of others. One man walked out in his black underwear, blood dripping from his bandaged left leg.
Some 20 minutes after she first entered the hospital, Saddam’s mother ran out. “He’s dead! He’s dead!” she yelled. “My boy is dead!” She collapsed on the road outside the hospital, next to the pool of blood formed by the young man who died there. Several armed men tried to console her before ushering her into a car and driving her home.
“Empty the area, empty the area! Three tanks are moving toward us now!” somebody yelled. The crowd scattered. Two teenage boys stood at the ready with an orange stretcher.
Over at the Abdel-Wakil women’s hospital, a middle-aged woman with a shrapnel wound to the head waited for a doctor to see her. She cried out for her brother Iyad. She was the only wounded person to make it to the hospital. “A rocket hit our home and our neighbor’s house,” Iyad said. “My sister, her husband and three children, and my wife and children were all in the house.” His white polo shirt was drenched in blotches of blood. “I don’t know where my children are,” he said. “They’re five, eight and 11. I don’t know where they are!”
“Take her to the Shifa hospital. She needs a CT scan. We can’t treat her here,” a doctor in green scrubs said, referring to Iyad’s sister. They couldn’t find a car to transport her there. “There’s no gas,” yelled a nurse. “This is all because of you Bashar!” The hated President no longer needs to be named in full.
“The army is here, quickly the army has entered!” somebody yelled from the street. Gunshots rung out. The thumping sound of mortars continued. A car arrived and ferried the wounded woman, as several nurses frantically took turns to use the landline in the hospital’s administration office to call their families. (Although cell phone coverage has been out for weeks here, the landlines still work.)
Back at the FSA outpost at the school, armed fighters slowly trickled back from the front and from the hospitals, asking about the dead and the wounded. The checkpoint was destroyed and the 15 or so soldiers manning it all killed. “Nobody expected this kind of retaliation,” one young fighter said. “They knew where we were, why didn’t they come after us instead of the families?”
At 9 p.m., the Hassan Hospital was still receiving wounded, mainly from the northern neighborhood where several rockets reportedly fell. Khaled, the armed fighter, was still in the hospital. He sat on the hospital steps, ammunition vest and AK-47 still slung across his back. “I’ve lost my sister in law, my neighbor’s entire family today,” he said, holding his head in his hands.
“Make way, make way!” several men yelled. A young girl, no more than 4 or 5 was carried in by a man, followed by an older woman on a stretcher and a middle-aged man. Tala, the little girl, was crying for her mother. A nurse searched for a pair of scissors to cut away her blood-soaked pink t-shirt. “Don’t be scared my darling,” the male doctor told her. She had shrapnel in her bloodied left eye, at least two small pieces lodged in the left side of her bleeding neck. Her short black hair was arranged in two ponytails, tied with pink bands.
“I want my mother,” she cried through tears.
“She’s coming my darling, she’s coming,” the nurse said.
The base of the child’s head was cut open. A blood-spattered green curtain was drawn in the room as a doctor started stitching her head wound without anesthesia. Her screams pierced the frantic, frenzied cries of others in the hospital that night.
The electricity cut out while Tala was being treated, three times in 20 minutes. Doctors yelled at armed men to get out of the consulting rooms. “She is my aunty, this is my uncle,” one armed fighter said, crying as he pointed to the middle-aged couple on the floor.
By 10 p.m., the death toll stood at 25, according to activists. The Hassan Hospital did not have any statistics about the dead and wounded. Many of the dead weren’t placed in the town’s morgues but were retrieved by their families and immediately buried in the martyrs’ cemetery. (As night fell it was simply too dangerous to head to the cemetery to verify the numbers.)
The armed men outside the hospital were angry, hyped up, ready to head back and fight. But in other parts of the town, some civilians, as well as fighters, were questioning if the attack on the checkpoint was worth it, especially given that little ammunition and weaponry was retrieved from the site. “It was too high a price,” said one woman. “Too much blood.”
“It was a failed operation,” one fighter said of the attempt to take the checkpoint.
The mortars and whistling rockets continued well into the night. At 12.04 a.m., one of the town’s mosques broadcast a message. This time, it wasn’t directed at the loyalist troops surrounding the city, urging them to defect. It was for the townsfolk. “People of Saraqeb, there is a wounded 12-year-old boy in the hospital. We don’t know whose son he is.”