ALEPPO PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) - After months of air raids and artillery shelling, some inhabitants of northern Syria are returning to their stricken homes to clear the rubble and rebuild, despite fear that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces will strike again.
One town visited by a Reuters correspondent near the Turkish border was largely abandoned two months ago after relentless bombardment reduced buildings to piles of masonry. A local activist said around 200 people were killed there.
Residents trickling back after the violence abated remain deeply fearful. Local leaders asked that the town’s name not be identified out of concern it would be targeted if the government discovered it was starting to function again.
Market stalls have reopened but chronic energy shortages make it hard to heat cold homes. The town’s leadership must find a way to effectively police the area and re-establish basic services.
Restoring some normality in this and other bombarded towns would comfort Assad’s opponents, who insist his use of force to quell an uprising that began with peaceful demands for political reform will fail.
The government in Damascus says it is fighting a Sunni Islamist “terrorist” campaign to topple Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect affiliated with Shi‘ite Islam.
The 21-month-old conflict has killed 44,000 people.
Schools in the northern town have begun to function once again. Teachers have struck ‘Nationalism’ from the curriculum, a subject that taught respect for Assad and lauded his Baath Party’s achievements.
At a secondary school, dozens of students are crammed in classrooms, some of them reading English and maths textbooks.
The school operates for three hours a day with a fraction of its usual staff. Before the conflict intensified in the town, it had 800 students. Now only 200 show up to study in the freezing classrooms.
Though aware that a college education is probably out of the question for now, many pupils convey a quiet discipline.
“I am learning so that I can help the revolutionary movement,” said 16-year-old student Mohamed.
Asked why he returned to teach in difficult conditions, one 50-year-old Arabic teacher said: “The citizen has to adapt to the new reality. Death is a matter of fate”.
As well as running the schools, a town council struggles to provide diesel for heating and transport and flour for the bakeries and is fixing faults in the electricity network - often the target of attacks.
Its efforts are complicated by a dire shortage of cash. None of the town’s employees receive salaries for now and they often fund projects using their own money.
“Since the area was liberated from army and security forces, there has been a vacuum that requires leadership,” Walid al-Arid, a member of the 20-member civil council set up around six weeks ago, told Reuters.
The council’s headquarters is in a cultural center that used to show plays that praised Assad and the Baath Party.
The town even has a local court overseen by lawyers who oversee the preparation of paperwork from rental agreements to real estate contracts.
“If it weren’t for the Free Syria Army, the regime would never have allowed us to have our own court,” said one of the lawyers, Assi Hallaq, sitting at a desk with Syria’s green, white and black revolutionary flag perched behind him.
“The judiciary was not independent and was politicized in its actions. So the judge used to feel like a lowly employee for the regime and had no freedom,” he said.
At the local prison, a tall, stone building with black metal arches dating back to the French occupation, a lone prisoner lay on an iron bed covered in blankets in one of its five-by-15-metre cells.
One of the men guarding the prison was Hisham, a 29-year-old dressed in a black tracksuit, who said he helped run a 50-strong team providing security in the town.
Traffic police work at crowded intersections, night patrols are in operation and some team members guard municipal buildings, said Hisham, who did not give his family name.
Prisoners are held for 24 hours until they are charged or released, he said, a contrast to the indefinite incarcerations that many Syrians have complained of during the Assad family’s four-decade rule.
Rebels say Assad’s forces and their sympathizers resort increasingly to torture and summary executions.
Opposition-held areas have also seen cases of vigilante justice.
Despite the partial return to normality, the daily thud of tank shells is a reminder that the conflict is never far away.
“Life is more awful than you can imagine,” said Hussein Abdullah, a vegetable-seller at one open-air market. “People are taking on debts to buy food. God rid us of him (Assad).”
Editing by Tom Pfeiffer