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A few weeks ago, rebels in Syria captured a village called Kherbet al Joz. It's near the northern border with Turkey. Syrian families who had fled to Turkish refugee camps returned to see what had happened to their homes and farms. Many found charred ruins, a village devastated by war. Now the villagers are rebuilding something new. With the help of Syrian activists, they're trying to set their own small example by creating a secular democratic place.

NPR's Deborah Amos pays the village a visit.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: It's a cold and rainy day, but it that doesn't dampen the celebration at the police station when Syrian activist Razan Shalab Alsham arrives with 20 brand new police uniforms.

So it's all large?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, extra large, large, medium, and the trousers, 44, 46, 48.

AMOS: She's part of a group called the Syrian Emergency Task Force that raised money for the project.

SHALAB ALSHAM: Let's see them now. All of them wear this uniform together.

AMOS: These are local men who joined rebel brigades to free their village from regime control. Now, they say, they want to be a civilian police force to back the civil council that runs things here. For the first time, Khirbet al-Joz is run by locals, not leaders appointed by the central government. The blue uniforms are a symbol of the change, says Shalab Alsham.

ALSHAM: Look, the most important thing is he will change his wearing from soldier military uniform to a civil uniform, civil police uniform. This is the most important thing.

AMOS: They pull on the trousers, zip up the jackets and spill out of the police station.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: God is great, they shout, but these are mostly secular-minded men who shake hands with female visitors and pose for pictures when they're all dressed in blue. Ahmed Fido, a defected army officer, is now the chief of police. How will it make things different here?

AHMED FIDO: (Through translator) It's very important 'cause the civilian people should show that they are civilian police and life should be normally again without the regime itself.

AMOS: Life is hardly normal. Power is out most of the day, fuel is in short supply. The school and burned-out homes now serve as shelters. More than 4,000 displaced moved here from villages still under bombardment because Khirbet al-Joz is safe.

ALSHAM: This is the local council. Every day a lot of people come every day to this village.

AMOS: The council office is a single room where a handful of men are in charge. Local government is mostly about handing out food. In one corner there are bags of bread. This is a distribution center for an unruly crowd that has gathered in the courtyard outside. When the police finally arrive, the handout begins. The policemen in their new uniforms are keeping order here, and it's a very hard job. There are families pushing to get into the line to get the daily rations. There's produce in the local market. A newly opened pharmacy is lightly stocked with medicine smuggled in from Turkey. But the displaced have no means to buy at any price. These donations come from the Turkish government.

ABDUL WAHAD: Cheese, butter, chocolate, jam - not enough.

AMOS: Not enough, say Abdul Wahad, because the aid is for 1,500 and there are more than 4,000 people to feed.

WAHAD: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: In Arabic he explains he was asked to join the council because he had experience in government. He switches to English to explain the sensitive and the surprising details of his past. And you were in government before?

WAHAD: Yes.

AMOS: What did you do?

WAHAD: I was secret police.

AMOS: You were secret police?

WAHAD: Yes.

AMOS: And now you work for the local government here?

WAHAD: This is my village.

AMOS: Were you ever a secret policeman here?

WAHAD: No.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: He had a long career in the capital, he says, but saw an opportunity to defect when his home village were finally free and he and his family could be safe. Like so many Syrians, the 20-month revolt has changed his life. Now he sees his future here, in this small hillside border town that wants to set an example of a secular democratic Syria but needs outside help for the experiment to survive. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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