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.
"There were lots of villages around that had just started protesting and they wanted to say, 'This is what we can do to you,'" Schaib said. "They committed the massacre to teach the whole region a lesson."
The Syrian government rarely comments on its military actions and blames the uprising on armed terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy. It bars most reporters from working in the country, and the AP was able to visit Taftanaz only after entering from a neighboring country.
The price of Taftanaz's defiance is obvious around town. Homes have been reduced to rubble. Most shops along the town's main street are shuttered, their thick metal doors scarred by shrapnel and gunfire. Black soot lines the windows of others. Yet others lie collapsed in piles of bricks and mortar.
"They took what they took and burned what they burned," said Abu Eissa Ghazzal, 75, another member of the extended Ghazzal family. Standing near his torched grocery store on the ground floor of a three-story building, he despaired for the future.
"They didn't leave me a single nail," he said.
His younger brother had built the building after working for two decades in Saudi Arabia and lived with his family in the top two floors, Ghazzal said. Now all had been torched, and his brother and family had fled to a refugee camp in Turkey.
His older brother lived across the alley and refused to leave his home when the army came. When the attack was over, rescue teams found the 81-year-old man's body still in his home, burned to a crisp.
"Now there is nobody left," he said. "Who is going to rebuild all of this, now that all of those with children have left?"
The army has not returned since the April raid. Local activists still organize protests, though many fewer people attend, and rumors of impending military incursions often terrify residents.
Most of the dead rest in a long mass grave on the village's east side, their names scrawled in marker on cinder block headstones. Preceding most names is the honorific "hero martyr." One inscription for the unidentified bodies reads simply "four people."
"Most of them were my friends," said Abdullah Ghazzal, the English student, walking among the graves. He pointed out the grave of his 44-year-old brother, shot dead that day.
"They also burned down his house," he said.
Ben Hubbard spent two weeks inside Syria with a team of AP journalists. Taftanaz was among the hardest-hit areas the team visited, but many other cities and towns also have suffered heavy damage.
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