Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Deir el-Zour
The column of eight rebel fighters picked their way along the street in Deir el-Zour at sunset, moving carefully through the debris of crushed glass and concrete, keeping their heads low and backs bent under the weight of the guns and rockets they carried.
They worked their way along the cratered road, past buildings chipped with multiple bullet holes and apartments and shops that had spilled out their contents on to the warm tarmac: burned mattresses, sofas, a fridge.
Nearby, mortars and shells were pounding out a rhythm. The men stopped in front of a collapsed building whose remaining walls were black with soot. There was a stench of rotten bodies. “We lost three men here two days ago,” said the commander. He pointed at three dark puddles of congealed blood. “They lay here next to each other.”
One fighter picked up a melted black flipflop. Another picked out the charred remains of a man’s robe. He sniffed it. “This belonged to Abu Qutada,” he said. “This is the smell of a martyr.” He tucked the stinking fabric into his bag.