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Rebel gains in northern Syria have forced out President Bashar al-Assad's army. One by one, villages and towns have slipped from government control. And now, Syrians are struggling to transform the country on their own through local councils and committees. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Jerablus, near the Turkish border.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCKS)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: I'm standing at the border between Turkey and Syria, and this road is clogged with trucks and taxis. There are mountains of Pampers for babies, macaroni, rice. Every truck is loaded with goods on the way into Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCKS)

AMOS: Turkish officials open a blue metal border gate into Syria. Jerablus is right next door. Liberated by rebels in July, trade has started again, explains Syrian journalist Lubna Mrie.

This is private Syrian money?

LUBNA MRIE: Yes, so people inside just collect the money and they send anyone who can buy those things and they can rent a car and bring them inside.

AMOS: Now, the rebels charge a customs fee, about $80 per carload. In many places in northern Syria, power rests with local armed groups. We hitch a ride into town on the back of a truck. There's an edgy crowd of armed young men, rebels, who want to show off a pickup truck armed with a heavy machine gun.

These young fighters are respected for their sacrifice but civilians want to establish civil control here. They have no experience in home rule in a country that's been run from the top down, so it won't be easy.

ALLA MOSA: If you live here, really live here and see what I see everyday, you cannot be happy.

AMOS: Alla Mosa says after years of following orders, people aren't really sure how local government works. There are three committees - one for medical, one for military, and humanitarian work.

MOSA: (Through translator) We need support. I was a schoolteacher. We are all civilians. There are people with great ideas working really hard but there is no support.

AMOS: No support from the international community, no aid of any kind, and this small town has a heavy burden. Overwhelmed by more than 20,000 Syrians fleeing violence from other places, Jerablus is considered safe, says Mosa, because it's so close to the Turkish border that Syrian warplanes don't bomb here.

MOSA: (Through translator) The liberated areas have honestly become just a shelter for refugees but it's a disaster zone.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN CHANTING "ALLAH AKBAR")

AMOS: At the local school, boys repeat the rebel chant - God is great - as they battle with wooden guns and knives. They're here with hundreds of displaced families. They sleep 20 to a classroom. Meals are cooked, laundry is washed here. The school is a grim home. Still, it's safer than the towns they came from. Aleppo, Homs, Idlib are under heavy bombing and shelling. But food is scarce here and winter is coming, says Um Hoda, as she comforts her baby girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

UM HODA: (Through translator) Her stomach is hurting her and she can't sleep because it is cold.

AMOS: The civilian committees and the local rebels are the only support. Before the revolt, this was a farming village of 40,000. The Assad government provided everything from subsidized food to job programs in exchange for unquestioned loyalty and the secret police. When the regime pulled out, the electricity stopped and the phone network went dead. Buildings here are in ruins after the fighting. Alla Mosa says he's sometimes overcome by so much sadness but he never wants the Assad government back.

MOSA: No, free, it's better, we now feel that the country's - that's mine. We need this building for us. Before, you are just a worker, just a worker.

AMOS: Now, he works for the people of Jerablus, a free town, he says, that wants to show that Syrians can rule themselves. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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