Children go to school, women shop with confidence, artists work and independent newspapers are flourishing — the town of Minbej is a rare example of the potential in a post-Assad Syria.
Unlike other cities in the northwest heavily, which are petrified by the war to bring down President Bashar Assad, relative peace and stability have allowed a small number of activists to indulge in less urgent matters than fighting for survival.
They have set up independent newspapers, organized street clean-ups and commissioned artists to paint caricatures designed to foster community spirit.
They have fled jobs and studies in Damascus and Aleppo. Well-educated and reluctant to pick up a gun, they believe they can foster democracy and free minds through street art and low-budget, limited-edition newspapers.
“The goal is to help the country in this critical situation [and] in the absence of government activity, inspire youth for the future,” said Faiz Abu Qutaiba, 24, the irrepressible head of the “Agency for the Youth of the Future”.
The former English student is upbeat, determined to look on the bright side despite the considerable amount of rubbish still rotting in the streets.
“Yes thank God it did,” he smiles when asked if the clean-up changed anything. “People start to work now and clean the street outside their shops. Anyone who wants to join us, we will let them chose how they want to participate,” he said.
Such activities would be next to impossible in Aleppo and other areas of heavy fighting, or more conservative Sunni Muslim Arab towns in the northwest.
Although they have little more than a few laptops and an abundance of goodwill, they can work only because Minbej escaped the worst of the devastating conflict that is estimated to have killed nearly 40,000 people in 20 months.
Air strikes are few and far between, and there are no mortar attacks.
Residents say Syrian government forces left in July without a fight and the largest rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, does not maintain a substantial presence in town.
The large, vibrant caricatures painted on public walls are an unusual sight in war-torn Syria where many other towns have been heavily bombed.
The designs disparage the profiteer; another encourages people not to bang their fists down excessively on car horns.
Then there is the government official, depicted as a fat man, blindfolded and tied to a chair with the strapline “the chair’s guilty, not me” — a damning indictment of corruption and myopia within the Assad regime.
Ahmed, 24, who studied translation and worked as a dancer in Damascus but is now an oil painter, is one of the artists involved.
He and his family came to Minbej four months ago and although his father disapproves of his painting, Ahmed sees the uprising as a new opportunity.
“For 40 years, this regime tried to tie us down. We couldn’t do anything we wanted, just study. We don’t have any jobs, we don’t have companies, the economy is so weak and now we started to express ourselves in everything,” he said.
“We started painting the walls, after that my friends and I came up with the idea of the newspaper, but it didn’t happen in one day,” he said.
Path to Freedom
Now they have published seven editions of “The Path to Freedom” which tries to tread an independent path between both the regime and the rebels.
The October 22 edition includes an article about a Syrian writer and another about an actor who left his studies in the United States to campaign for Assad’s removal but has been arrested in Damascus.
There’s an obituary about a local fighter and a comment piece complaining about rival rebel units who spend more time showing off than trying to shoot down the planes that still occasionally strike Minbej.
The editor in chief, Bassel, said he long wanted to set up an independent newspaper but that it was impossible when the regime was still in town.
He says they run off 500 copies of the weekly for subscribers and distribute a limited number in local shops, costing around $200 to produce.
He pooh-poohs the skeptics who told him that they would be shut down, forced to flee abroad should the regime return or face the wrath of Islamists who the West believes have hijacked the uprising.
“Journalism used to be limited to specific sects, to a specific bourgeoisie, to a certain intellect, but we have overcome all these past ideas to get closer and closer to the idea of a democratic mentality,” he told AFP.