Hama's streets are deserted. They are strewn with debris, not so much from the shelling that left gaping holes in many of the four- and five-story residential buildings along the city's main thoroughfares, several of which are now blackened, but from the desperate, makeshift barricades set up by residents in a bid to block Syrian President Bashar Assad's tanks. There are piles of broken cinderblocks, doors torn from their hinges, sheets of decorative wrought iron. At Roundabout 40, along a main road, there are even two fire trucks, now burned. "It didn't stop them," says a resident as he surveys the damage. "It didn't even slow them down."
Much of the army that stormed this scarred, proudly rebellious city almost two weeks ago withdrew to its outskirts on Aug. 9. Although most foreign journalists are barred from entering Syria, TIME did so clandestinely. Convoys of dozens of tanks, transported on flatbed trucks, rolled out of Hama along the main highway toward Homs, some 25 miles (40 km) away, followed by ramshackle trucks full of troops flying the Syrian flag, with weapons haphazardly pointed at passing civilian cars.
Still, there remain military units in Hama's Assi Square, scene of the massive protests that roiled Assad's regime for weeks. It's a no-go zone for civilians. There are also clusters of tanks at several key locations around Hama, including in front of the city's two main hospitals, Al-Hourani and Al-Bader, which residents say have been emptied of patients. TIME could not verify the claim because troops were rigorously checking the IDs of anyone who attempted to enter the medical facilities. By some accounts, security forces were killing wounded protesters in the hospitals. Em Mahmoud, who has been a nursing veteran for 22 years and who works at a private 30-bed hospital not far from Roundabout 40, says several injured protesters were brought into her facility, too afraid to seek treatment in the main facilities. One was shot in the chest, another in the knee. "Soldiers came into the hospital looking for wounded protesters," she says. "We hid the three that we had. We moved them on gurneys and in wheelchairs toward the back entrance, and from there we drove them to a safe house."
Residents speak of being unable to reach bodies in the streets, of snipers targeting people in their homes, of house-to-house searches, mass indiscriminate detentions, looting and even rape. There are cars in the streets that have been shot up, several with bullet holes that pierced the windscreens on the driver's side, at head level. It's unclear how many people were killed, although residents speak of hundreds dead. In the coming days, there will be an accounting, as families slowly return and the numbers of missing, detained and dead are ascertained.
But perhaps even more painful than the physical damage, residents say, is the humiliation: the graffiti Assad's troops left all over the main streets, much of which is considered blasphemous and deeply offensive to this religiously conservative majority-Sunni Muslim city. "There is no God but Bashar" is scrawled in black paint in Souk al-Farwatiye, across the street from the vast, imposing white stone structure that is the ruling Baath Party headquarters in the city. "God Bashar and Maher Mohammad," reads another sign, referring to Assad's younger brother Maher, commander of the despised 4th Division, responsible for much of the bloodshed over the past five months. The graffiti equates Bashar Assad to God and his brother to the Prophet Muhammad. "God wants Bashar," "Assad's lions passed through here" and "We choose three: God, Bashar and Maher," read other signs, near anti-regime graffiti that has been scribbled over. Some messages are chilling in their simplicity: "If you return, we return."
Hama was a city under siege for almost a month until July 31, the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the military stormed the city. Residents say that day was the bloodiest. "They shelled us continuously from 5 a.m. until 10 a.m. every day, and then again from the afternoon to all night," says one resident, a young man in a white singlet who refused to give his name. He asks me to wait before returning after several minutes with a plastic bag full of empty bullet casings and at least 15 14.5-caliber anti-aircraft shells, weaponry not supposed to be used on civilians.
The people of Hama buried their dead in public gardens, unable to reach the city's cemeteries because of the heavy shelling. Still, despite what was clearly a large assault, there is no talk of revenge or anger toward the soldiers. In dozens of conversations with Hamwis, as the residents call themselves, over the past few days, all said the same thing: the soldiers were forced to follow orders, on pain of death. "They are all our children," says one man, 55, who gave his name as Abu Ali. The city's ire is directed toward the security and intelligence forces as well as to the clumps of black-clad armed thugs known as shabiha, who still man checkpoints all over the city. "Our dispute isn't with the army. It's with the regime," said Abu Abdo, a 30-year-old whose home was shelled. "They have been told we are armed gangs. We want this regime to fall."
Abu Ali, 25, has a broken, bloody nose. On Aug. 5, he was home with his mother when shabiha and security forces kicked down his door. "I didn't have time to hear them say anything," he says. "There were about five of them. They walked in and started hitting me." He says he doesn't know the reason of the assault or how long it lasted. A short, hairy man, he lifts his gray T-shirt to reveal two still raw diagonal cuts across his right abdomen before turning around to reveal seven circular burns on his back, made by cigarettes, he says. "They took our money, our TV and my mother's gold. May God damn them," he says bitterly.
The electricity and phone lines are now working, although both were cut for the first five days of the siege. Food ran low, but the community did not run out, thanks to the efforts of nearby towns whose people smuggled in supplies that were quickly distributed to those in need.
This is a city used to adversity. The bloody events of 1982 when the President's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, destroyed the city for its Islamist insurrection are still vivid. Almost every family in this city of some 800,000 lost relatives during that blood-soaked period. Hafez blamed the assault on his brother Rifaat, a military commander, and the two were estranged until Hafez's death in 2000. The people of Hama say this time, they will not allow Bashar to get away with what he has done to their city or to blame it on Maher, also a military commander. They plan to renew their protests on Friday. Indeed, there were protests in several neighborhoods the same night that the military pulled out to the perimeter of the city. "On Friday, we will protest in our neighborhoods, because we can't reach Assi," says a resident. "We will continue protesting. If we didn't want to before, we want to now."