North Hama residents recount the ‘fateful day’ they lost their city following Saturday bombardment

Mustafa al-Mubarak, 35, was leaving his shift at a local bread oven Saturday morning when the bombs first struck.

He watched, only meters away, as the first missiles tore through his place of work, killing everyone inside. Shrapnel from the blast gashed his leg, as he hobbled to reach his family, blood still dripping fresh.

The ensuing 24 hours, al-Mubarak says, were like “nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

Al-Mubarak is from the northern Hama town of Kafr Zeita. On Saturday, regime and allied Russian forces bombed hospitals, bread ovens, mosques and three Civil Defense centers in the city. Scores of airstrikes, cluster munitions and artillery shells killed dozens of civilians and first responders by the day’s end.

“Simply put, it is the most intense regime bombing campaign against this city since the start of the revolution,” al-Mubarak tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar and Yazan Torko.

The bombardment is part of a broader regime offensive aimed at wresting control of Hama province from opposition hands and comes just weeks after pro-government forces rolled back all territorial gains made by rebels in the area in March. 

 The site of an alleged Russian airstrike that killed eight Civil Defense volunteers in Kafr Zeita on Saturday. Photo courtesy of the Hama Civil Defense.

Al-Mubarak—who fled Kafr Zeita with his family to live in the northern Idlib camps along the Turkish border—says Saturday’s bombardment rendered his city “unlivable,” now an abandoned and bombed-out shell of its former self, 10km away from the active battlefronts.

“Kafr Zeita is destroyed in every way imaginable,” Ahmed Talfah, 25, a member of the Kafr Zeita Civil Defense tells Syria Direct. “In the six years of this war, I’ve never once seen a day like this."

“The city is devastated.”

Mustafa al-Mubarak, 35, previously worked at Kafr Zeita’s bread oven. He fled the northern Hama city on Saturday with his wife and five children and now lives in a northern Idlib border camp near Turkey.

Q: Why did you leave Kafr Zeita?

We left Kafr Zeita on Saturday because of the bombardment. It was nonstop. There was no mercy.

Psychologically and physically, that day left its toll on my family and me. Even though we were living in an underground cave, we saw how the Russians used bunker busters throughout the entire day.

The killing was indiscriminate. They didn’t leave a single stone unturned. It destroyed hospitals, bread ovens, places of worship and Civil Defense centers. We had no other choice but to leave for the northern border camps where we’ve managed to find some degree of reprieve from the bombings. The situation in the camps is far from good, but it is certainly preferred to living under the bombs. I’d rather be here than have my family, my children, living in a state of perpetual fear.

Q: Where were you when the bombings first started on Saturday?

I had just left the bread oven where I work. We work in the evenings and rest during the days, and it was minutes after I left that the missile struck the bread oven, killing those who were inside. My leg was injured by shrapnel, but, miraculously, I narrowly survived.

When my family and I were leaving Kafr Zeita for Idlib, we were petrified. It was absolute terror. The rockets were coming out of nowhere, the bombs striking at any given moment, and we knew that any one of them could kill us in an instant. The warplanes were circling in the skies nonstop. Whenever one passed overhead, we would say the shahada because we knew that we were facing death. We really felt that like our end was imminent.

Q: Where did you go after you left the city?

At first, we went to my farmland just north of Kafr Zeita in an area called a-Sawas. There’s one room there, where we stayed for a day. The following day, however, a helicopter dropped a cluster bomb that landed just 500 meters from us.

The second that I saw that helicopter hit the farm, we threw our stuff together and left for the camp. I told my family that this is no longer a safe place for us to live. But if the regime will go so far as to follow us to our own land just to kill us, then where can we go? 

Q: You’ve lived for six years through this war in Kafr Zeita. What were you feeling as you finally left on Saturday? Do you hold the rebels and their offensive on Hama in March responsible for inviting this retaliation from the regime?

It is very difficult for someone to see their land and their hometown pummeled with all different kinds of weapons, its residents rendered homeless in the name of terrorism, despite the fact that the regime is the one who is killing and terrorizing civilians with its warplanes.

I am against the military campaign that the rebels waged on the regime areas in Hama because they did not plan their attack correctly and failed to inform us to take caution—especially in light of the regime’s revenge tactics against civilians following any military campaign waged against it.

As civilians, we have no say as to what goes on. I am not opposed to any military campaign against the regime, but there needs to be planning, preparation and a study of the consequences before the launch of any battle.

I oppose the surrender of our areas to the regime, even if we all died. Everything that we have suffered through up until this point is better than living under the control of the regime. We’ll take a hellish life with the rebels to the promise of heaven under Bashar any day.

 A Syrian forces’ artillery observer near the northern Hama town of Qumhanah on April 1. Photo courtesy of Stringer/AFP/Getty Images.

Q: Do you feel safe where you are now? How is it living as a displaced person for the first time? Do you think you will return to your home in the near future?

Since arriving at the camp, I have felt safe and mentally relaxed. But I am not happy living away from my house and my city. What a difference it is, living in one’s home, versus living in a tent. I’m still having a hard time getting used to life in the camp.

Despite the fact that I’m not fully comfortable living in the camp, I don’t think I will move to Turkey.

I hope to return to my home. I think I will wait until after these barbaric bombings to calm down.

Naturally, I feel exhausted, especially because I was forced to leave my land to protect the lives of my family members and children. Thank God I’ve felt they are safe after arriving at the camp. They are doing well with me, and this what I care about most right now. 

Q: Is this the first time that you have been displaced since the start of the war?

This is the first time that I’ve been displaced from Kafr Zeita, namely because this is the first time that the city is simply unlivable. It’s reached the point where there’s just no point staying there even if you could keep living in an underground cave or in a shelter.

Before, I could just go to my cave, and I could bear the bombings, but this campaign is different. What we’re witnessing now is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Simply put, it is the most intense regime bombing campaign against this city since the start of the revolution, especially due to the use of bunker busters that can penetrate caves and cellars.

Public facilities have been entirely destroyed in this city. This is the most violent bombing that Kafr Zeita has witnessed since the start of the war. Life as we knew it came to a halt.

Every five minutes, a warplane fired an airstrike, and between every airstrike there was an artillery shell landing on us. We aren’t just talking about one or two aircrafts in the sky. There were four of them flying together, and all of them were firing on essentially the exact same place.

**

Ahmed Talfah, 25, is a member of the Kafr Zeita Civil Defense.

Q: The Kafr Zeita Civil Defense suffered a horrific loss this weekend. What happened on Saturday, and how does one begin to pick up the pieces and move forward in the aftermath of such an event?

There are six Civil Defense centers that serve the north Hama countryside. In [Saturday’s] brutal attack, three of them were knocked entirely out of service. We removed what remained from the other centers out of fear that they too may be targeted.

The bombing hit Station 107, while there were eight Civil Defense workers inside. They had gone to the center’s basement because of the intensity of the bombing, but even then, a bunker buster broke through, destroying the entire building and killing them. When we tried to go out to rescue our partners in that building, we were met by missiles raining down on us. The warplanes didn’t leave the sky for one second that entire day. They were carrying out airstrikes with cluster bombs and vacuum missiles nonstop; they didn’t once slow down. One of the members of the ambulance team who came to help rescue the injured was also killed.

Even last night, we were working to pull the bodies of the dead out from underneath the rubble because on Saturday we were only able to recover five bodies. After what has happened, we can definitively say that there is no amount of fortifications that can make anywhere in Kafr Zeita safe.

As for our next steps, we have not yet formed a new plan at this moment. We’re waiting for the dust to settle and emotions to cool especially after this fateful day. We’ve lost a lot of men, and still the regime continues to target us repeatedly even as we try to recover the bodies of our fallen.

Right now, Kafr Zeita is destroyed in every way imaginable. Bread ovens, hospitals, Civil Defense centers it is all completely destroyed. The city is devastated.

Civil Defense centers in the north Hama countryside have completely stopped their work because of the airstrikes.

In the six years of this war, I’ve never once seen a day like this.

 

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Yazan Torko

Yazan studied interior design at Damascus university. In 2012, Yazan moved to Jordan where he volunteered with Syrian refugees. He is passionate about theater and previously developed YouTube videos for NGOs and small news outlets.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.

Alaa Rateb

Originally from Homs, Alaa Moved to Jordan in 2013 due to the security situation in Syria. She volunteered with Syrian refugees before joining Syria Direct.