AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) - For seven days 53-year-old Walid Murai was holed up in his house with his wife and children in his hometown of Azaz in northern Syria as rebel fighters battled to gain control of the town from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
With their food running low and tank fire skimming the roof of their two-storey home, Murai decided it was time to leave. He knocked a hole in his living room wall, gathered his wife and 12 children and led them through to his next-door neighbour’s home.
From there the family passed from house to house until they reached the outside, escaping to the relative safety of the surrounding villages. After hiding there for three weeks, the family was finally able to return on Monday.
“Come! Come! Look at my house. Look at what they did,” Murai shouted, as he climbed up onto the roof of his concrete house.
“Look at this; they fired at us with tanks,” he said, pointing to two large holes in the wall surrounding the roof’s terrace. Smaller bullet holes peppered other parts of the wall.
For months the Syrian army had laid siege to this rebellious town of 35,000, positioning its tanks in the city centre and using their high-calibre guns to suppress public dissent.
But emboldened by rebel advances in the surrounding areas, the town of Azaz rose up this month and, in a final push, battled Assad’s troops in the town’s dusty streets, finally driving the government soldiers out last Sunday.
Only five kilometres (three miles) from the Turkish border, the victors in Azaz have taken a town in ruin.
Some houses have collapsed in heaps of rubble, pounded by tank fire, while the remaining buildings stand scorched or pock-marked with bullet holes.
Burnt-out tanks struck by rebels’ rocket-propelled grenades sit motionless on the town’s roads, while spent bullet casings lay strewn across the ground next to an old leather Russian tank helmet.
A mosque in the town’s centre that served as a base for Assad’s army is now all but destroyed, scorched tanks and armoured vehicles immobilised in its courtyard. Sandbags stacked in the mosque’s windows mark deserted army sniper positions.
Young children clamber through the rubble where worshippers once performed ablutions.
With the town now in rebel hands, small signs of life have begun to emerge as residents slowly return to their homes to inspect the damage.
“We have no electricity, no running water,” said Murai’s 40-year-old wife Able Sheikho.
“All our food has gone bad,” she said, opening her fridge to reveal a plate of mouldy cheese and a bowl of eggs.
Murai and Sheikho, like many of those in Azaz, speak in both Arabic and broken Turkish, a reminder of the town’s proximity to its northern neighbour.
Some returning families ride through the town’s streets on motorcycles waving and shouting anti-Assad slogans to passing reporters. A man stops his motorcycle, shouting “Assad!” as he slices his finger across his neck in a throat-slitting gesture.
Rebel fighters prowl around the town in cars, AK-47 rifles still slung over their shoulders.
One fighter who gave his name only as Mohammad said the rebels were now in complete control of the area.
“There are no soldiers around here now, but they are firing artillery rounds from 30 km away,” he said. “No way will they come back here. If they try to, we will defeat them!”
Rebels in the town said many of the government troops had retreated to a helicopter base 12 km outside Azaz.
They said their fighters had surrounded the base, cutting off their supply lines and were waiting for the troops to surrender.
“God willing, we will now move onto Aleppo,” said one Free Syrian Army commander, Captain Abu Rashid.
“The rebels have already seized many parts of the city,” said Rashid, wearing aviator sunglasses and a rifle slung over his shoulder as residents lined up to have their picture taken with their new hero.
In the meantime, Murai and his wife face an uncertain future.
“There is no security. I don’t know what is going to happen,” said the 53-year-old tailor.
Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Will Waterman