The Syrian town of Binesh “will become an inferno” if government troops launch a much-feared new assault on it, says Abu Salmu, a commander of rebel fighters there.
“It will be like a volcano that has erupted that no one can stop,” he adds, recalling how rebels and townspeople repulsed an attack four months ago after four days of house-to-house combat that killed 16 of them.
For days now, the people in this northwestern town of 30,000 not far from the Turkish border have been expecting the worst, as nearby villages are besieged by tanks, then attacked and captured.
And their anxiety is heightened by memories of what happened here four months ago and has happened elsewhere in the country.
“People are very afraid … because they have seen with their own eyes the atrocities of which the regime’s soldiers are capable,” says Binesh Mayor Abu Abdu.
“No one can forget the (Homs district) of Baba Amr, or Daraa or Idlib,” he says, recalling rebel strongholds seized by government forces, who allegedly carried out retaliatory massacres of men, women and children.
The Syrian government does not allow foreign journalists free movement around the country and accounts of what happens there are often impossible to confirm.
“Now that we know their intentions, we have no intention of sitting at home while they massacre us,” adds Abu Salmu, a former regular army officer.
Binesh lived through its own atrocities, says English teacher Mohammed Abdel Kader.
“The government arrested all the doctors in town and murdered them because they were treating the wounded,” he says, adding that his own brother was beaten to death in prison because he couldn’t raise the money for his release.
When Assad’s soldiers entered the town, “they arrested men, women and children,” Abdel Kader says. “People saw what they did here and they are terrified.”
The children are particularly traumatised and in need of psychological counseling, he adds.
“They are afraid to go to school now because, during the four days of occupation, (security forces) arrested so many people that they had to hold them in the schools. Children are still suffering from the memories of going to school and seeing their fathers and brothers jailed.”
For now, people wait for the inevitable, attempting as best they can to put on a brave face by keeping to their daily routines, not an easy task.
Binesh’s central square is the scene ever Friday after weekly Muslim prayers of demonstrations by thousands of people against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
But today it is, as usual, a market, with fruit and vegetable stalls and merchants looking for buyers. Women look for a good buy, while children scamper around them.
Yet good buys are a plus; finding anything at all is more the norm.
“Many shops have closed because they’ve run out of stock,” one resident says. “I had to move my family out because there was nothing to eat.”
“Prices have sky-rocketed in recent weeks, and there isn’t even medicine to treat a common cold, because they come from (the nearby city of) Idlib, and now the supply routes are in the hands of the army, and nothing is getting through.”
Also, with tanks biding their time less than 10 kilometres (six miles) away, people understand that once an attack comes, Binesh will become a prison.
There are three roads out of town, and they will almost certainly be blocked by tanks. No one will be able to leave.
So some people are leaving now.
Abdel Kader says his wife and eight children have gone to Aleppo, where they are safe.
“But I wanted to stay here because this is my town. If I have to die, I would prefer to do it in Binesh, in my town.”
“We don’t want to kill Bashar, we just want him to leave Syria and let us live in peace. We need to be masters of our own lives.”