- - Wednesday, August 29, 2012

AZAZ, Syria — Residents of this northern town recently filled in 30 graves, topping each with a headstone made from rubble bearing the lament — “To the spirit of the martyr.”

A dozen other plots lay open nearby, and locals said they would not be empty for long.

“Day by day, there are more martyrs,” said Ishan, 30, who gave only his first name for fear of retribution. “This is Azaz. It was a safe place. There are no ‘terrorists’ here. Do you think a child can be a terrorist?”

The Free Syrian Army, composed of rebels and defectors from the regime’s military, has declared nearly the entire region surrounding Azaz as “liberated.”

President Bashar Assad’s regime, however, has labeled it full of “terrorists” and has launched repeated aerial attacks on Azaz and neighboring villages — one last week killed at least 200 civilians and several rebels, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees.

In Azaz, more than 30 members of one family died in air raids as they were gathering to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid earlier this month.

“We heard the sound of the plane and the explosion,” said one older man, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. “They even hit the dead.”

Even so, the spirit in towns such as Azaz and nearby Suran has been one of defiance, and of change.

Townsfolk have been organizing themselves, making preparations for elections, for the days of the post-Assad rule.

On the street beside the cemetery, a white-turbaned imam clad in a long beige tunic led prayers. His voice hoarse, he yelled into the microphone, demanding justice and the fall of Mr. Assad.

Towns like these keep the 17-month-old uprising alive, say rebels. Locals hold on and try to resume normal activities, even as planes circle overhead and refugees continue to pour into their neighborhoods from elsewhere.

On Tuesday, Syrian security forces hit the eastern part of the capital, Damascus, killing about 60 people in a new front-line battle area, said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group based in Britain.

The violence followed a bloody Monday in which 190 people — 116 civilians, 40 rebels and 34 soldiers — were killed across Syria, the Observatory said.

In Azaz, rebel fighters have the look of a makeshift fighting force, dressed in mismatched camouflage and surplus army gear. Even so, they insist they will have their victory over the Assad regime, no matter how long it takes.

Mohammed Abass was a farmer before being conscripted into military service by the regime to fight against protesters. Since the uprising began in March 2011, four members of his family have been killed, and he defected to the Free Syrian Army.

He noted the measures the rebels have taken to hold the town: Residents man a few checkpoints. Each has an old Kalashnikov rifle and a walkie-talkie to warn of planes.

“The regime will fall soon if God wills it,” Mr. Abass said. “We want weapons to take down the regime but the Arab and Islamic world need to support us.”

The Free Syrian Army insists that more help is needed from outside, such as a no-fly zone over the territory that the rebels hold. Turkey supports such plans, but the U.N. has balked at the suggestion.

A few miles south of Azaz, Suran’s town center hosts a state-owned TV tower opposite the main mosque draped with a Free Syrian Army flag.

Residents operate a few checkpoints, and bread here is much more expensive than last year.

Still, unlike besieged cities such as Homs or parts of Aleppo, locals here have just enough to survive: The soil is red and rich, home to olives and varieties of fruits. Teenagers shoot pool in a community recreation room, and barbers do a brisk business.

Town council member Mohammed Saer, 41, said that organizing Suran’s services has been a struggle. “We have shortages of everything: housing, jobs, medicines,” he said.

Still, residents look ahead.

“In the future, we will have elections. Everyone will have to be voted in, from the mokhtar [village head] to the street cleaners,” Mr. Saer said. “Foreign intervention would mean that Bashar would be gone in a week. But if we do it ourselves, it will take two years.”

“Removing him is the only solution,” he added, noting that former leaders Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya “one by one they left, and we see that life is better without them.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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