TAFTANAZ, Syria — The main street of this once-bustling Syrian farm town now stands eerily quiet, its shops charred from arson, its shoppers replaced by cats roaming the rubble of homes destroyed by tank fire.
At dawn April 3, Syrian forces shelled the town in the first volley of what residents say was a massive assault after a string of large protests calling for the end of the regime of President Bashar Assad. Soldiers then stormed in, torching homes and businesses and gunning down residents in the streets. By the time they left on the third day, at least 62 people were dead.
Two months later, the destruction remains, but most residents are gone. Local residents estimate that about two-thirds of the town’s 15,000 people have left. Most do not expect them to return.
‘‘There is nothing for people to come back to, and they worry that if they rebuild, the army will destroy it again,’’ said resident Bassam Ghazzal, who lost more than 20 members of his extended family in the attack. ‘‘People don’t want to become refugees twice.’’
The destruction in Taftanaz, seen by an Associated Press reporter, provides an on-the-ground example of the huge price paid by Syrian communities that have chosen to defy one of the Middle East’s most brutal autocracies.
Since the start of the anti- Assad uprising in March 2011, the regime has responded to unrest with brute force, dispatching snipers, troops, and tanks to quash dissent. Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since, many of them civilians.
In general, the violence has not stopped the uprising, emboldening protesters, galvanizing international condemnation, and leading many in the opposition to take up arms.
Taftanaz has a different story. It is a place where great force appears to have not only crushed a protest movement but struck a blow against an area that may never recover.
In many ways, Taftanaz, a jumble of simple concrete homes surrounded by golden wheat fields some 19 miles from the northern city of Idlib, tells the story of Syria’s uprising writ small.
Residents had long complained of state neglect and corruption that left many living in poverty, Ghazzal said. So when protesters inspired by the successful uprisings against autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in Syria, they followed along, first demonstrating for change in April 2011.
Local security officers quickly ended the protest, but the town organized more, sparking further crackdowns and arrest campaigns by regime authorities, Ghazzal said.
The Syrian Army raided the village three times in the next four months, Ghazzal said. During a June raid, Ghazzal’s cousin was shot to death at a regime checkpoint while trying to flee, making him the first of the town’s ‘‘martyrs.’’
Others followed. Some in the town took up arms, and an October clash between the army and local rebels killed five residents. Other residents buried them and held another protest the same day, Ghazzal said.
Then all was quiet until April 3, when tanks shelled the town from four sides before armored cars brought in dozens of soldiers who dragged civilians from their homes and gunned them down in the streets, witnesses said. The soldiers also looted, destroyed, and torched hundreds of homes, bringing some down on their owners’ heads.
Videos shot at the time show tanks posted near the town’s entrance and huge columns of smoke rising across the area.
Local activist Abdullah Ghazzal, a university student in English, says 62 people were killed during the attack, four of them burned beyond recognition. Two others have never been found.
Residents are unsure what sparked the assault. The town had only a small rebel presence, though fighters from the area had killed soldiers at nearby checkpoints or destroyed regime tanks, said local fighter Sahir Schaib. Rebels also blew up nine regime tanks as they left the town, mostly with homemade bombs planted along the roads.
He suspects the regime sought to stop the town from emerging as a protest center, especially since it is near a military base.