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Updated Monday, December 17, 2012 at 06:05 AM

No water, power, cash: Syria rebels run broke town

By KARIN LAUB
Associated Press

The anti-regime locals who have thrown together a ramshackle administration to run this northern Syrian town have one main struggle: Finding money to keep their community alive. Like other nearby rebel-held towns, Maaret Misreen is broke.

Many of the town's 45,000 residents are out of work. There's no cash to keep water or electricity running, so they come on only sporadically. Prices have skyrocketed. Long lines form at the only working bakery for miles around, creating vulnerable potential targets for airstrikes.

This week, the town's main mosque preacher, Abdel Rahim Attoun - who now doubles as the town judge - appealed to worshippers to chip in to buy fuel for communal water pumps. He asked each family to donate 200 Syrian pounds, a little under $3, the cost of a large bunch of bananas.

But even that's too much for many residents, so no one is being forced to donate, said 29-year-old Amer Ahmado, who is an electronics engineer but was picked by the newly formed local council for the job of managing the town's meager finances.

The situation is repeated across the swath of rebel-controlled territory in northwestern Syria, said Zafer Amoura, a lawyer who represents Maaret Misreen in an emerging provincial council. Communities are now cut off from the national government that helped keep them running, and locals forming impromptu administrations try to meet the needs of daily life amid the civil war.

At the same time, the rebels in charge of Maaret Misreen are preoccupied with the 21-month-old battle against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some of Assad's troops are positioned just a few miles away, in the provincial capital of Idlib, while regime warplanes and combat helicopters continue to strike Maaret Misreen and its surroundings.

On a recent afternoon, a helicopter flew above the town's only working bakery, where a long line had formed, sending some people running for cover. Regime aircraft have targeted breadlines before. A bomb crater outside the Maaret Misreen bakery's bread distribution window witness bore witness to what residents say was a deadly attack several weeks ago.

Still, many were so eager to keep their place in line that they didn't budge when they heard the whirring of the helicopter's rotors.

"People are afraid, but they got used to it," said Yasser Bajar, a 35-year-old laborer and father of three who last had a paid day of work four months ago. He had been in line since the morning and had just collected his bread when the helicopter appeared overhead, then veered away.

Outside the bakery, rebel fighters acting as policemen enforced an orderly line - women to the left, men to the right - as customers advanced to buy the maximum per person allotment of 24 pieces of flatbread.

Even as they complain about hardship, residents say they don't want to go back to the old days, before the outbreak of the revolt against Assad in March 2011. Their stomachs were full then, but the regime controlled their lives, they said.

"We just need to get rid of him (Assad) and then get some rest," said Omar al-Helo, 23, who stopped working as a carpenter months ago for lack of demand and now ekes out a living selling fruit in a small outdoor market.

Maaret Misreen, a 30-minute drive from the Turkish border, is surrounded by vast stretches of olive groves and is the main town providing services for about three dozen hamlets in the area.

The Syrian military didn't have a presence in town and rebels took control in October 2011, as local regime representatives gradually slipped away, residents said.

Fighters use the town as a rear base for their battle for Idlib, some 10 kilometers (seven miles) to the south. The bearded men, rifles slung over shoulders and ammunition belts crossing their chests, are everywhere in town, driving around in pickup trucks or hanging out in one of the coffee shops.

Meanwhile, residents hustle for necessities. Over the past year, the local economy contracted sharply as dangerous roads restricted the movement of goods, shops closed and more men joined the fighting.

Water flows only for an hour or two a day because the town can't afford diesel fuel to pump it. Electricity comes on once or twice a week, briefly. Prices are up sharply - triple for diapers, almost double for a can of tuna, which now goes for the equivalent of about $1.30. The regime stopped contributing to the town's operating costs after the rebel takeover, and residents stopped paying municipal taxes or utility bills.

There are attempts to keep some semblance of an economy going. Women and children have harvested olives in recent weeks despite the risks. In one grove, a rebel tank was parked under the trees, tucked away until the next battle.

In an odd twist, the regime continued for months to pay salaries of civil servants in rebel-held areas, including in Maaret Misreen, where local officials estimate at least one-third of working adults hold government jobs.

One of Maaret Misreen's 22 garbage collectors said that while some of his colleagues have quit, he and others are still getting paid.

However, the regime is starting to clamp down, said Amer Bitar, a 50-year-old former judge.

Civil servants are now required to pick up their salaries in person in Idlib, and many from Maarat Misreen won't make the trip, fearing arrest as rebel sympathizers at regime checkpoints, Bitar said. Bitar himself quit his job as a criminal court judge in Idlib several months ago for fear of arrest.

Another resident said he still commutes daily to work in a state-run company in Idlib, passing through government checkpoints.

"If someone is not wanted, they leave him alone and don't say anything," he said of the regime.

He said about a third of the company's employees have left because of the turmoil. The 50-year-old spoke on condition he and his work place not be identified for fear of retribution.

Two months ago, Bitar and others set up the local council to run the town. Strong social ties help hold things together. Bitar is a cousin of one of the town's main rebel commanders. Attoun, the mosque preacher, has been recruited as a judge, ruling on anything from traffic accidents to marital spats.

Local rebels double as policemen when not on the front lines.

One recent day, rebels caught a suspected motorcycle thief and took him to one of their bases, a two-story home in an olive grove on the outskirts of town. They handcuffed and blindfolded the frightened 16-year-old. He refused to give up his accomplices, and was told he'd be handed to a much tougher battalion for further questioning.

Ahmado, the town's young financial manager, said resident's donations have brought in the equivalent of between $490 to $700 a week, a tiny fraction of what is needed to buy enough diesel for water pumps and generators.

Bitar said foreign aid is the only way out for rebel-run communities if the regime hangs on.

In the past, foreign donors were reluctant to channel large sums to Syria's fractured opposition for fear the money could fall into the wrong hands.

The international community pledged tens of millions of dollars in aid after recognizing last week a reorganized opposition coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people. But money is unlikely to start flowing soon.

Bitar said that despite the difficulties, Maaret Misreen needs to learn now how to run itself so it has a head start in a post-Assad era. "After the regime falls, we will be ready," he said.


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