The uneasy normal of 'Free Syria'

The territory between the northern city of Aleppo and the Turkish border is firmly under rebel control, but aerial attacks from the Syrian Army leave residents far from safe.

Javier Manzano
Family members wait outside a clandestine hospital after a fighter jet from the Assad Air Force fired on the northern Syrian city of Al-Bab.

(Monitor correspondent Tom Peter spent a week and a half making daily trips into rebel-held territory in northern Syria to report on Syrian Air Force bombings of bread lines and demonstrations; makeshift refugee camps along the Turkish border; the rebels' plea for a safe zonerebel efforts at self-governance; the Free Syrian Army's weapon shortages and scores of recent defectors; and the deep divides growing within Syrian society, which have put even brothers on opposing sides.)

Crossing the border into Syria without the government's consent once meant ducking under a lonely stretch of border fence and navigating mine fields.

That's still the case in most places. But at one crossing on the northern border with Turkey, near the town of Kilis, that's all changed. A sign now hangs over the entrance to the Syrian side welcoming visitors to "Free Syria." Border workers register and stamp everyone's passport with their own stamp.

Since fighting erupted in the northern city of Aleppo in late July, the opposition's Free Syrian Army (FSA) has pushed government troops out of the territory between Aleppo and the Turkish border, gaining control over a corridor roughly three quarters the size of Rhode Island. The opposition has now established fledgling local governments that do everything from subsidizing bread to running criminal courts and prisons.

In many parts of this Free Syria, life almost seems normal. Less than a 10-minute drive from some of the hardest fighting in Aleppo, markets are open – albeit with a majority of shops indefinitely shuttered – and on side streets men sit outside in plastic chairs drinking tea and watching their children play.

But these signs of stability may be more of a mask than the new face of Syria. The FSA has ousted government forces from the area, but jets and artillery still attack daily, making Free Syria feel anything but liberated and secure.

Despite the pleas of opposition forces, the international community has shown no willingness to impose a no-fly zone or provide the FSA with antiaircraft weapons that would allow them to combat government airplanes themselves. President Bashar al-Assad's Air Force rules the skies, bombing with impunity and keeping residents in the grips of fear and paranoia.

In a small village near Al-Bab, one of the main cities in the so-called Free Syria, Mohammad Mustafa Awis says the heavy and unpredictable bombing drove his brother to the breaking point.

"He was afraid of the airplanes. When he heard any loud sound he thought it was the jets coming to bomb us. So one night he left the house, and we never saw him again," he says. "His friends knew he would leave, but he didn't tell us [his family] because he was afraid we would try to stop him."

It's been two weeks since Mr. Awis saw his brother, and no one knows where he went or whether he's still alive. His brother has no phone, and there is no Internet connection in their area, so the only option is to comb the surrounding villages.

Awis has already visited all the surrounding villages and checked with local FSA units. With all other options exhausted, he plans to send his brother's photo to Syrian refugee camps in Turkey in hopes that someone will spot him and report back.

No respite from fear

Residents say that one of the most stressful aspects of the bombings is their seeming randomness. While planes do fire on military targets, they also often attack civilian homes and gatherings.

At a recent nonviolent protest in Al-Bab, residents gathered in the town's main square after Friday prayer to call for the end of the Assad regime. With the nearest government troops at least 30 miles away, the mood was jubilant as people shouted and sang slogans like "The people ask God for victory" and "We will take Assad's soul and get revenge!"

The celebration was shortlived, however.

A government plane soon appeared, circled, and finally dived toward the heart of the city – where demonstrators had already begun to scatter – before dropping a bomb. The plane stayed for an hour, strafing the streets. The attack killed at least seven people and injured dozens.

"[They] attacked because it's Friday, and there are many people in the street," said Abu Yousef, an FSA fighter in Al-Bab. "They're just bombing randomly."

In the week that followed, government planes returned every day to bomb the city, killing and wounding dozens, many of whom were women and children. The message from the Assad government to the residents is clear: Citizens might call themselves free, but they are still within the reach of the Syrian government.

Even in the makeshift refugee camps that have sprung up within several hundred yards of the FSA-controlled border crossing into Turkey, people say they do not feel secure.

"It's the safest area on the ground, but we don't know if it's safe from planes," says Saladin Danoon, who works at the Relief Office, an independent Syrian group formed to help refugees and poor Syrians affected by the conflict.

Grim determination  

In Azaz, the largest Syrian town before the border crossing, Mohammad Abu Ahmad sits in the shade on the edge of what used to be his neighborhood before it was destroyed by a government jet late last month. The attack killed more than 40 people and wounded more than 100. Fighting there ended weeks before the strike, and residents say there were no military targets in the neighborhood.

"No one saw the attack coming. The jet just came, dropped the bomb, and left," Mr. Ahmad says.

He is now waiting for a truck to come and clear away the rubble. Amid the wreckage he hopes to find his brother's body and any salvageable possessions. Despite what he's endured and no matter what dangers arise, Ahmad says he will not leave his homeland.

"Some of us want to live here in tents. We'll stay even if Assad comes here to try to kill us again," he says.

Even the few who haven't lost loved ones or possessions face new challenges: Wartime inflation and economic depression remain persistent problems, with prices climbing anywhere from 20 to 200 percent and most people unable to work as the constant fighting forces most businesses and offices to close.

"We have some savings, but it is almost finished. We have enough money left for maybe a month or two weeks," says Bakhari Hajr, a college student. He now spends most of his days at a local bread shop, where he shops for his family and volunteers to help maintain order in lines that can last for up to three hours due to food shortages.

Many of those who have fled now face grim prospects as refugees.

Laham Hijazi lost his right leg below the knee and his vision in a bombing about nine months ago. His family sold everything they had so they could afford to flee to Aleppo, which was still calm then. When fighting broke out there late last month, they joined more than 100,000 Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey. At the peak of the exodus, still ongoing, 5,000 people crossed the border every day.

But after living in a tent and struggling to receive medical treatment, Mr. Hijazi and his family decided to return to Syria, where they now number among the country's 1.2 million internally displaced people. They live with other refugees inside a school in Azaz, sleeping inside classrooms, with as many as 17 to a room.

One room has been converted into a combination shower and kitchen and about 300 people share 10 toilets. Most of those living in the school have fled and resettled multiple times in the last year; have few possessions; and have little, if any, money left.

"I don't want to go anywhere now. I just want to stay here in Syria and die in my own country," Hijazi says.

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