Third of five parts
Tucked in the olive groves and rocky hills of northern Syria, the small village of Qurqanya doesn't seem like much.
Scratch the surface, though, and you realize that this is a hub for the revolution in northern Syria, where a kind of shadow state is forming.
As the Syrian state recedes, the people in this village and villages around it are filling in the blanks with their own institutions and, for better or for worse, their own ideas about how a country should be run.
The rebels started taking control of these villages and towns a few months back, as the Syrian army focused on holding major cities.
The first thing the rebels do is take over the post office or the police station and set up shop as the local authority.
Each village or town has something different to offer the rebels. In Qurqanya, it's a school that during the summer break can be used as a kind of media center, with a few laptops and an Internet connection.
In the next town over, it's a hospital.
The head doctor says he might treat dozens of injured rebel fighters from all around this region in a single day. Places that treat rebels used to be totally underground — makeshift MASH units set up in people's houses.
In many parts of Syria, it's still like this. But more and more, the rebels are coming out into the open and asserting their control.
Trying To Provide Better Governance
I'm in a truck riding with the rebels of the Free Syrian Army. And we're doing something that just a month ago, maybe two months ago, would have been totally unheard of. We're driving on a highway — freely, openly, during the middle of the day.
In fact, we just went through a checkpoint. It wasn't a government checkpoint but a Free Syrian Army checkpoint. Soldiers saw who we were — a pickup truck with guys with guns in the back — and waved us through.
Driving into the next town, the town marker has been painted with the rebel flag. Once we're in town, we can tell what that means. There is no sign of the Syrian state anywhere.
This is a major town, and basically everybody supports the revolution. It's not like everybody is out fighting; business is ongoing. There are shops open all over the place. We sit in a cafe and have ice cream. There are toys and chairs and bicycles for sale. Life goes on.
Locals tell us it's not just about feeding, transporting, treating and housing the rebels. It's also about providing better governance than the Syrian state could offer.
An elderly sheik now serves on a rebel-appointed council of judges who hear cases brought by the people.
Before the revolution, he was a preacher in a mosque. Now, he says, he applies strict Islamic law to the cases brought before him. He recently sentenced a man to 100 lashes for having sex out of wedlock.
What If The Regime Regains Control?
My translator — who recently lived in Syria's mostly secular capital, Damascus — groans at the thought of being punished for whom he sleeps with. He says he can't help but wonder if the new, shadow government will be any better than the previous one.
There's the real concern that the shadow government might not last, that the Syrian regime will somehow regain control in these areas and punish people for providing so much support and cover for the rebels.
Back in Qurqanya, regime helicopters circle closer toward the village, firing rockets in the hills just beyond. It's the closest the regime's forces have ever gotten to Qurqanya.
Later that night, I see the first signs of worry on the face of the woman of the house where we're staying. She won't let me record her, but she keeps asking me what will happen.
Will the regime come for us tomorrow? she asks. No, I tell her, I don't think so.
What about after that? she asks. I tell her I just don't know.