Rebels drove the much-feared Syrian security forces out of the northern city of Minbej in July, but as calm returned to the streets, so did the criminals.
The victorious rebels are now slowly rebuilding Minbej’s police force to combat the rise in crime, which ranges from theft to murder, but due to a severe lack of funding and equipment, face a mammoth task.
A unit comprising around 50 “revolutionary police” has been formed to restore law and order to the city, which lies near the border with Turkey and 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the key battleground city of Aleppo.
The fledgling force is headed by Abu Mohammed, a police chief who defected from the regime in another part of Syria and ended up in Minbej.
“There are some citizens who think that freedom means that there is no system — no!” Abu Mohammed told AFP in an office in the city’s main administrative building.
“Of course, from the time of the liberation of Minbej until now, there have been mistakes and violations and crimes happening, and the number of bad people is starting to grow in the absence of authority to stop them,” he said.
“Therefore, the idea was to organise the police force, the revolutionary police, to fight violations and crimes happening in this city.”
The members of the new force all defected from the regime but had not been involved in “carrying out actions against the protesters, against the people,” Abu Mohammed stressed.
The force is currently limited to police with prior experience, and new recruits are not yet being trained, he said.
In addition to a dearth of numbers, the Minbej police force lacks both money and equipment.
“Now there are financial difficulties and a lack of enough weapons,” Abu Mohammed said.
Samir Khalaf, one of the city’s policemen, agreed: “There is one car, a Toyota Land Cruiser; it uses a lot of petrol. We also don’t have weapons,” he said.
“These are our difficulties. And there are no salaries,” Khalaf added.
A new judicial system has been established to support the work of the police, complete with prosecutors, judges and a makeshift jail housed in the basement of a hotel.
Contempt for the previous administration remains high, with stickers bearing President Bashar al-Assad’s image stuck across the floors of the hotel lobby and in the basement for people to step on.
The new judicial system is based on French law, but modified to be faster, said Mohammed Othman, a lawyer who is now one of the city’s prosecutors.
“Our judiciary is civil; our punishment is prison,” Othman said, sitting at a desk in the lobby of the hotel.
There is a “group of lawyers in the prosecution and investigation and judgment, and we have sheikhs in the arbitration, the arbitration committees,” he said.
But he too complained of a shortage of money for the enormous law and order challenges facing the city, which once boasted a population of 100,000 but from which many people have now fled.
“Our problem is financial. The police, as you know, have families, they want money; they don’t have money,” he said.
In the basement of the hotel, a man is questioned by an investigating panel over the theft of motorbikes.
The basement also serves as a makeshift prison, with 10 detainees held in a padlocked room, sitting or lying on mattresses on the floor.
Outside, the streets are quiet — unlike the situation in Aleppo to the southwest where the boom of shells and crackle of rifle fire are a constant feature as rebels and regime forces do battle.
Children walk and play in the streets, a boy carefully arranges cigarettes he is selling on a small table, and old men wearing red and white keffiyeh scarves and traditional robes smoke cigarettes amid boxes of vegetables in front of a shop.
When asked about security in Minbej, resident Ghiyath al-Hassan, 23, said it has now reached about the same level as before the rebels took over.
But while there is no fighting in the city, residents still face air strikes by Assad’s forces. And many people are jobless.
The problems are unemployment, and the air strikes: “There is no work for many people; now the people, we are scared — planes come and go — this is the issue,” Hassan said.