A woman in Azaz, Syria, looks at the rubble of a house destroyed by government… (Muhammed Muheisen, Associated…)
AZAZ, Syria — This battered agricultural hub near the Turkish border is one place where the Free Syrian Army has triumphed, scattering the forces of Syrian President Bahar Assad. It has proved to be something of a Pyrrhic victory.
Shot-up buildings, burned tanks and a pile of twisted rubble where a MiG fighter jet dropped a bomb last month attest to the heavy fighting required, the danger that remains, and how hard it will be to rebuild a normal life any time soon.
Like Azaz, many rebel-held towns in northwestern Syria are depopulated and heavily damaged. Refugees filter through Azaz on their way to safety in Turkey. A heavily guarded military base, still under the control of Assad's forces, is only about 10 miles away. Artillery shells and the occasional airstrike shatter the calm.
None of that is likely to change until the fighting is over. But with the conflict grinding on, those who remain here are focused on just getting by, aware that they are fortunate to at least have electricity and running water.
Few in this conservative Sunni Muslim town, once home to about 50,000 people, mourn the collapse of government rule. Hatred for Assad and his leadership circle — made up largely of members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam — runs deep.
Near the site where the MiG dropped the bomb in mid-August, a man with a neatly trimmed beard squatted, contemplating the debris. The man, who identified himself as Abu Shado, said he lost 17 family members in the airstrike, including two brothers, his father and his mother.
Opposition sources say they were among 60 people killed in the airstrike. Scores were wounded.
"It should have been an equal fight: young men against young men," Abu Shado said, scanning the wreckage like a seasoned sailor scrutinizing the sea. "Not this."
His home, a few hundred yards away, was spared. But he spends a lot of time across the road from the wreckage, along with others who smoke cigarettes and stare at the debris. "I find comfort here," he said.
At a former army barracks, now in ruins, graffiti proclaiming "Assad Forever" is a source of mockery. Military uniforms lie discarded on the floor of a school that had been used as a barracks. Posters of soccer heroes and female pinups attest to their former residents.
The tricolor of the Syrian uprising ripples in the wind alongside the Turkish star and crescent at the nearby Bab al-Salameh border crossing, where the trickle of visitors is welcomed to "Free Syria."
The crossing, previously a major commercial hub, is now a sluggish compound where scruffy refugees gather in the shade of large structures meant for cargo truck inspection. There they wait their turn to cross into Turkey, where austere but safe tent cities await them.
There is no commercial traffic at the border crossing. Armed rebels check passports, having become de facto immigration officers, mostly serving returning Syrians and the occasional journalist.
The last government troops pulled out of Azaz in late July, the opposition says. The snipers have gone, but hulks of destroyed tanks remain on many streets, vivid reminders of months of clashes and shelling and sniper fire.
The government's exit sparked a day of great celebration here. But about 80% of the population also has left. Few rebels are even here.
Rebel fighters remain on checkpoints outside the town, but virtually all of them are needed in the battle for Syria's commercial capital, Aleppo, 30 miles away.
Last month's airstrike was a reminder of the vulnerability of the town and many other places now controlled by the rebels. Government warplanes and artillery can strike at will from bases scattered around areas that are otherwise held by rebels.
Some who came here from Aleppo and elsewhere for shelter left after the airstrike.
"We are living in fear and terror, but we are Muslims and believe in God," Hassan Tabach, 32, a women's clothing store owner, said Tuesday evening after the daytime heat had abated and some people ventured onto the streets or into shops.
A 43-year-old man who gave his name as Abu Mohammed sat on a street enjoying tea with his family, including its 87-year-old patriarch.
Across the street, Amaar Shaabo, 24, was busy cutting hair for the nighttime clientele. Business is way down; rebel troops are among his regulars. But Shaabo said he keeps the shop open as much as possible.
Shaabo said that he was married three months ago amid shelling, and that many people left after the big airstrike. "But I have hope they will come back," he said.
As night fell, the thud of distant shelling returned. But there was also the laughter of children in the streets and the din of conversations as people sat outside in the fresh air.
Everyone here seems to want the war to end. Few seem to think it will any time soon.
"Sometimes we have hope," said a woman, 38, who fled Aleppo's violence-racked Salahuddin district and wonders whether her family is safe here. "And then the shelling comes back. And we no longer have hope."
As if to emphasize the point, the roar of a fighter jet broke the quiet just after midnight, followed by an explosion and a plume of smoke that rose from a residential neighborhood. There was no immediate word on casualties.