Residents of the northern Syrian city of Aazaz, “liberated” by the rebels three weeks ago, are already living a post Bashar al-Assad reality with a military and a political council running daily life.
“When the fighting ended, there was nothing. No water, no electricity, nothing to eat,” Samir Hajj Omar, head of a new political council in Aazaz which is striving to organise for a post-Assad rule.
“Today, we have restored about 80 percent of services,” he boasted.
It has only been three weeks since the northern city, located near the Turkish border, was taken by the rebels following five months of fierce fighting with forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, residents have set up a political and military council to handle daily affairs.
Life is slowly returning to Aazaz, a city of 70,000 inhabitants around 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Aleppo where the army is pressing a ground offensive it launched on Wednesday to recapture areas seized by rebels since July 20.
Two thirds of the population, many of whom had taken refugee in neighbouring Turkey, have returned to Aazaz and the souk has reopened for business.
And in tribute to those killed in the fighting, one of the main city landmarks has been renamed “Martyrs Square.”
“We are free and happy,” says Abu Musa, a merchant.
“All we want is for Bashar to go,” he added in reference to the president whose forces have been putting down an uprising against the regime since it first erupted 17 months ago.
On the surface, Aazaz is like any Middle Eastern city during Ramadan, the holy Muslim fasting month: idle during the day and lively after sundown when families get together to break the dawn-to-dusk fast with an Iftar meal.
At night, the streets are bustling with shoppers and cars are stuck in traffic.
The only difference in Aazaz is that children play on damaged tanks left behind by the army who was driven out by the armed rebels, and amuse themselves as they try to swivel around the gun.
But life is not all that rosy yet for Aazaz.
Although there are no apparent shortages of food, gasoline prices have quadrupled from 50 Syrian pounds ($0.75) before the war to 200 pounds ($3) today.
At the hospital, supplies of antibiotics, gauze and children’s medicine have been depleted because of the fighting and the medical team has been decimated, with only a doctor and three staff remaining from the former 25-strong team.
The physician, Anas el-Araki, puts up a brave face as dozens of women and children queue up, awaiting their turn to be examined.
“I have to call on the wealthy to try and get money and medicine. We depend entirely on donations. We are in the hands of God,” he says with frustration.
He also criticises the main opposition Syrian National Council.
“The Syrian National Council does not help us. They only make promises.”
With battles raging in many neighbouring areas, the city has also been providing haven to Syrians displaced by fighting and now hosts some 1,000 refugees mostly from Aleppo in schools or with residents.
Twenty-year-old Majda fled her home in the embattled Aleppo district of Salaheddin three days ago, escaping the shelling and snipers with her three children and siblings. But even in Aazaz she cannot rest easy.
“Yesterday, we heard fighting and three rockets fell. There is no safe place left in Syria,” said the young woman from beneath her pink and black veil.
“We are very scared.”
And while fighting has ceased in Aazaz, the army is never far away.
Just five kilometres from the city, the military airport at Minakh is still under government control.
Almost all of the rebel fighters from Aazaz have left to fight in the crucial battle for Aleppo, leaving no one to protect the city of 70,000 inhabitants.
“Sometimes you just want to die. In any case, right now we are slowly dying,” said Majda, who lives crammed with a dozen relatives in a small room.
The young woman, who did not give her surname, said that although she is afraid she does not want to cross the border into Turkey and become a refugee like many other Syrians have done.
In February, government forces stormed Aazaz but the rebel Free Syrian Army seized control of the city at the end of July after five months of fierce fighting.