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The army still shells the town daily, keeping residents away, and making some wonder how free they are.

“It’s not liberated because you can’t sit down without worrying that a rocket will fall on you,” said a local activist who declined to give his name because he often travels to Aleppo.

The violence has caused a continuous human tide, first pushing rural residents into Aleppo and then out as the battle there rages. As shelling continues around the province, it is common to see large families driving trucks piled high with washing machines, mattresses and bags of clothing. Many seek shelter in schools, farms and unfinished buildings in villages that local leaders have struggled to keep safe.

The refugees have doubled the population of the village of Maaret al-Artiq to 25,000 in recent months, said Omar Zahra, a resident who helps them find shelter.

“They’ll live in any building they can find as long as it’s better than a tent,” he said.

Azaz, the border town, has fared better than others. Residents are coming home, a few shops have opened and armed men run checkpoints at the town’s entrances. Young boys climb around on the destroyed tanks and armored vehicles half buried in the rubble of the security building rebels brought down with homemade bombs.

Graffiti by government soldiers on one wall boasts, “Assad’s beasts were here.” After they left, someone crossed out “Assad” and wrote “the donkey.”

In his vast, carpeted office, Omar, the silver-haired former teacher, fielded calls on three cell phones and two land lines while chatting with visitors. When asked how he got his job, he said it was “automatic” because of his role in the uprising.

As he spoke, however, the now-familiar sounds of a protest rose from the streets below — but this time with a twist.

“This protest is mostly against me,” Omar acknowledged with a laugh, dismissing the few dozen marchers as upstarts who wanted power without working for it.

“They feel they were left outside,” he said. “But should someone who was sitting on the sidelines come and sit here, or someone who was here for the battle?”