Middle East

Life in Marea - a rebel-controlled Syrian town at war

Suddenly, the funeral is interrupted. The crowd swarming through the cemetery forgets the linen-shrouded corpse of the man killed by shots from a fighter-jet, and all eyes turn upwards.

Far off, as the evening light fades, we and the mourners can just make out a helicopter whirring slowly towards us.

For a few minutes, our own potential death becomes more real than the death we have come here to mark - until the helicopter changes course, the crowd relaxes, and the burial resumes.

The evidence of 19 months of aerial attacks are evident on the streets of Marea

To be killed at a funeral is not unusual in Syria, and in the small town of Marea, just north of the country's second city, Aleppo, no-one relaxes for long.

Here, and throughout a swathe of countryside along the Turkish border, the rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rule the land. But the aircraft of President Bashar al-Assad rule the sky and almost daily, they rain death and destruction on places like Marea.

We have arrived in the town just after a bomb dug a huge crater in a field next to the site of the weekly market.

Terror on the ground

Almost everyone we meet has lost someone to the enemy in the sky - here, a boy was shot dead from the air as he rode his motor bike - there, a group of teenage lads were blown to pieces by a bomb dropped from a MiG fighter as they loaded potatoes onto a truck.

There seems to be no object to the random bombing, other than to sow terror.

The threat of a helicopter distracts those attending a burial in Marea

"It's revenge," says Yasser al-Haji, a businessman from Marea who moved abroad, then returned last year to join the revolution. "Marea was one of first cities to demonstrate.

"It's an economic war, too. Above all, they want to humiliate us for rising up against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad," he adds.

Marea - a community of about 30,000 farmers and traders, though many have now fled - is famous as the hometown of one of the most charismatic rebel commanders in the on-going battle for Aleppo, a former businessman called Abdul-kader al-Saleh, nom de guerre Haji Marea.

Marea's FSA commander, former electrician Abu Ra'ed, insists he and his men are moderates

He is a founder of the Tawheed Brigade, a formation that has tried to unite the many separate fighting groups around Aleppo.

It includes the FSA battalions who now control Marea.

They are made up of poor to middling people - farmers, teachers, a blacksmith, an estate agent - and they hate the regime of Mr Assad and his Baath Party, more even for its ubiquitous nepotism and corruption than for its lack of freedom.

"The new Syria will be a Syria without corruption, without bribery - we won't have a system like Baath where everyone is corrupt - we want justice," says Abu Ra'ed, the black-bearded electrician who leads the battalion defending the town.

Crossing the front line

Extraordinarily, though, a Baath party official, Mohammed Mahmoud al-Najar, is still the mayor of Marea even now that government forces have left.

The mayor does not hide his admiration for the man whose bombs are destroying the town: "Bashar al-Assad is a democrat," he says. "He loves his people, though now he may have changed."

The mayor is allowed to stay, for now, because of his connections. He can phone government authorities in Aleppo and get salaries or fuel delivered across the front line.

Despite being a Baath party official and staunch Assad supporter the mayor has kept his job

While in Marea we have a rare chance to film in a rebel-run court. A revolutionary committee of civil lawyers and Islamic law experts are trying three men suspected of stealing tea and smuggling it to Turkey who have been brought in by an FSA soldier.

Eventually, the suspects were provisionally let off after swearing on the Koran. Minor disputes have long been dealt with like this in Syria - but some think Islamic practice will now become more important.

Mohammed Mahmoud Saleh, a local mukhtar, or headman, trying the case says: "Sharia should come first, because Sharia is a form of justice that has proved itself for 1,400 years. But we should also graft on other laws to make it suit all communities - including minorities."

Western countries have refused to arm Syria's rebels partly out of a fear that weapons may fall into extremist hands.

Future leaders

Abu Ra'ed, the commander in Marea, discounts that fear. He says he and his men are moderates who will safeguard the rights of minorities after the fall of the regime:

Trials based on a mixture of Islamic and civil law practices are being held

"In Syria we have Alawites, we have Christians, we have Druze - before this we never had issues between Sunnis and Alawites," he says.

But he insists people like him will be in charge in the future, not the political opposition groups the West has been talking to most:

"The leadership will be formed from people inside Syria. We won't accept some exiled opposition figure who sits in five star hotels, while people are fighting on the ground.

"We lost brothers, uncles - do you think we'll let people living outside come back to control us? No! We have a saying here - the land is for those who work on it."

Watch Tim Whewell's full report on BBC Newsnight on Wednesday, 24 October 2012, 2230BST on BBC Two. Or catch-up afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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