Nearly one month after the fall of East Aleppo, the displaced residents of the once-besieged city are now struggling to adjust to their newly adopted home in Idlib.

Idlib has been under rebel-control since March 2015, after a joint offensive between rebel forces and Jabhat Al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham) pushed government troops out of the city. Since then, life for civilians has hardly improved. Residents continue to suffer from a shortage of basic supplies—from food and water, to fuel and medicine—and live in constant fear of bombardment.

With East Aleppo taking the brunt of the regime’s cruelty over the past two years, Idlib’s residents believed they had it “better” than their comrades in the northeast. Now overpopulated with East Aleppo’s survivors, Idlib’s relatively “better” circumstances have all but disappeared. Shortages, especially when it comes to medical aid, have been exacerbated by the nearly 40,000 new residents who fled to the city. 

Despite these challenges, Idlib’s residents, as well as their new Aleppan neighbors, mobilized on January 17, 2017 to establish the city’s first local democratic council. Many hundreds gathered to cast their ballots and choose from among eighty-five eligible candidates to head the council and run the city, according to Al Jazeera. Voters and candidates expressed enthusiasm and hope at what Houssam Al-Din Dbis, one of the civilian candidates up for election, called a “huge joy [and] unbridled desire by Idlib’s residents to create a local council that represents them as civilians.”

Although this is the first time Idlib has organized a democratic civilian council of this sort, popularly elected councils have existed for years in Syria, often under the harshest conditions. The local council in Daraya was perhaps the best example of this. It was democratically elected by civilians, and partially (if not completely) controlled rebel factions operating in the town. Before Daraya fell to the regime in August 2016, the local council there operated medical stations, canteens, an underground library, and even schools.

The establishment of the council in Daraya was not just a vital means to sustain the revolution’s spirit, but also an important reminder that truly free and fair elections in Syria have only been possible in areas where the regime is absent. It is precisely for these reasons that Idlib is now following in Daraya’s footsteps, despite the city’s discouraging condition. With whatever freedom they have, the civilians of Idlib are taking their lives into their own hands.

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