By Oliver Holmes
AZAZ, Syria, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Syrian rebel fighters speak proudly of the day forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad fled in their tanks from the northern town of Azaz as civilians armed with hunting rifles pushed into the main square. Yet a month on, there is no feeling of liberation here.
Eight km (five miles) down the main road, army troops still control a military airport from which they fire missiles almost nightly into the heart of Azaz, a town where more than half the residents have fled and refuse to return. And last week, a fighter jet dropped two bombs on a central residential district killing at least 30 people.
"We are not liberated. We'll have to wait until after Assad is overthrown, I think," said Abu Imad, a young activist and ex-law student who left the University of Aleppo in his final year to join a burgeoning protest movement as it started in March 2011.
Much of eastern Syria bordering Iraq, northern areas bordering Turkey and even rural parts of central Syria have fallen out of Assad's control as he has focused his fight on cities such as Aleppo, Hama and Damascus. That has left many outlying towns and villages in a similar situation to Azaz.
Azaz is in limbo: unable to move on with ordinary life even if feared government loyalists are not in the streets. Piles of rubbish lie outside, schools remain closed and the main hospital is empty - the staff fled to the other side of the Turkish border, three km (two miles) away.
Few streets remain unscathed from months of bombing and shop shutters are twisted by explosions. The families that remain sit expressionless in the shade outside their houses. The odd teenage rebel fighter with a scratched up assault rifle in hand will scoot by on a motorbike.
REMINDERS OF WAR
Many of the town's sons who fought in Azaz have formed brigades and moved down to the frontline in Aleppo, Syria's largest city of 2.5 million people where army troops battle rebel units neighbourhood by neighbourhood.
Their bodies return on stretchers to Azaz, reminding this sleepy border town that the war is far from won. On Tuesday, an 18-year-old fighter died in the morning on the frontline, killed by a sniper bullet to the head.
Funerals here are a regular occurrence and the visitors to the house of Amar Ali Amero were inexpressive, looking at his body wrapped in blankets before going outside to wait for the procession. Only Amar's closest family members seemed shocked that he had died.
His mother wailed as relatives held her up and his father fainted on sight of his dead son. After a moment of unconsciousness, he was splashed with water and woke up to realise for a second time that he had lost his son.
At the graveyard, men moved like robots to bury Amar.
The ritual is well-known and dozens of fresh graves lie in rows. The older tombstones from peacetime are beautifully fashioned out of marble with Arabic calligraphy. The hurried new ones are a chipped pieces of smooth stone with the names, birth and death dates scribbled on with felt-tip pens.
Several graves had been dug in preparation for the inevitable continued fatalities. Some were only four feet long. "For babies," said a man walking by. Amar died on Tuesday morning and by 2:30 p.m. his body was under Azaz soil. The crowd dispersed.
NOT FULL CONTROL
As with many towns across the country, it would be inaccurate to say Azaz is completely under the control of rebels.
The Syrian army decided to withdraw to the nearby military airport, a huge base housing five helicopters. Fighters say 400 men are stationed there but have decided to stay put for now.
In an olive grove a few hundred metres from the airport hide four rebels armed with AK47 assault rifles. They have one rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a heavy machine gun attached to the back of a pick-up truck.
"We have teams around the airport that start shooting when the helicopters take off. They have been unable to resupply the base for four days as they can't take off," Mahmoud Khajali, a rebel fighter said.
But these rebels say they are worryingly exposed. They say there is little chance they can take the airport while Assad controls the skies. Whenever they fire on the airport they come under mortar fire and sometimes face strikes by fighter jets.
NO HOPE FOR OUTSIDE WORLD
Hopes for help from the outside world have been silenced and many now feel anger, saying they have been left for dead. People here have been trying for months to garner food, medicine and weapons from countries that have thrown angry rhetoric at Assad but have been unable to halt the killing.
"America is with Bashar. All of Europe is with Bashar," shouted a man as he squatted on a concrete boulder inside his bombed-out house. Last week, his son and daughter died and now his home for 40 years has been split in two. Passersby look directly into the kitchen and bathroom. While Muhammed Omar Ramdo spoke, his entire body shook as he held back the tears.
Only a trickle of food is brought across the border and reaches Azaz. There is no sign of international aid here and residents say they are running out of supplies. Baby milk is the hardest to come by, they say. The mosque organises the distribution of rice, pasta and chickpeas to families here but says there is not enough to go around.
Rebels say that all their weapons and ammunition are looted from Assad's troops during battles.
"We have not received one lira from outside," said rebel commander Abu Musaab Al-Surie shortly before a missile whizzed over the farm house where he is staying and landed in Azaz.
The fight is far from won, he adds.
"We'll do this ourselves."