In rebel-held Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, opponents of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime hold local elections despite daily bombardment, putting into practice the democracy they have been deprived of for decades.
“For the first time in 40 years, we are voting freely,” said Khodr Orfali, a former lawyer who became politically active during Syria’s 23-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
On Sunday, Orfali became one of five local council chiefs elected in Deir Ezzor by residents of rebel-held areas, following a model of local leadership set up in several towns and city districts across the country in past months.
“It’s a historic day for all residents of Deir Ezzor. People feel free to choose the person they see most fit to help them,” the council member-elect told AFP.
The councils’ role is to help run the daily life of residents in areas where the regime’s authority has collapsed, pro-democracy activists say.
Pasted on the walls of a handful of insurgent-controlled areas of the city of Deir Ezzor are posters and pamphlets calling on residents to vote.
But the festive atmosphere among voters is marred by heavy rain and incessant bombardment by regime forces, leading election organisers in the insurgent-held district of Sheikh Yassin to set up a polling station in the basement of a souk.
Dozens of voters gathered, leafing through lists of candidates’ names.
“I want to take part in this election to tell Bashar (al-Assad) that all we wanted was the freedom to vote, and participate in decisions about our country,” said Umm Shadi, 56, voting for the first time in her life.
Syria’s revolt against Assad began in March 2011 as a peaceful uprising and later morphed into an armed insurgency, after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissent.
The UN says some 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Among the dead was Umm Shadi’s son, who died six months ago fighting troops loyal to Assad.
Prior to the summer’s escalation of violence in Deir Ezzor, some 750,000 people lived in the city. But most residents have now fled, bringing the current population down to an estimated 200,000.
“People came despite the bombing, to support the revolution,” said Abdel Hamid, who supervised the voting. “This is a way of fighting against the regime, without taking up arms.”
Deir Ezzor’s local election, like numerous others in rebel-held areas, were a far cry from regime-organised votes.
“Before, elections were held to show the world Syria was a democracy, though (ruling) Baath party members won every vote,” said one man taking part in Sunday’s ballot.
Mohammed Abdel Majid, 75, agreed.
“The Assads did not come to power democratically, and they tried to convince the world that our uprising was illegal. We are only reclaiming what was stolen from us. Democracy will return to Syria,” he said as he cast his vote.
Another voter, Ahmed Mohammed, pushed aside fears that Islamist groups may seize power in war-torn country.
“We want a democratic state, not an Islamic state. We want a secular state run by civilians, not by mullahs,” he said.
Free Syrian Army rebel fighters were forbidden from taking part in the vote.
“It is an opportunity for civilians to have their say. We soldiers must fight against regime, that’s our job,” said Abu Obeida, a rebel commander.
Election day was not without difficulties. At around 2:00 pm (1200 GMT), three people who had been chosen in separate elections broke into the makeshift voting centre and started shouting and tearing up ballots.
“They say we don’t have the right to organise these elections. This is the start of a new tyranny. We are fighting against Bashar (al-Assad), but this revolution has given rise to new Bashars, hungry for power and money,” said the elected council member Orfali.
After 10 hours of voting, 486 ballots were counted, despite the fact that some 5,000 people had been called out to vote.
“It’s very little, but in these circumstances, it’s a success,” said Abdel Hamid, the vote supervisor.
Standing before some 50 people tasked with counting the votes, he said: “The result hardly matters. Today, it’s the people who have won.”