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The improvised nature of the rebel lockups is clear in Al-Bab, 45 kilometers (28 miles) northeast of Aleppo.
Rebels took control of the city in a battle last month against regime forces holed up in the post office. After some fled, rebels stormed the building, throwing the dead bodies of government soldiers from the roof.
After the regime’s withdrawal, local leaders formed a 12-person council to run the city’s affairs. They opened the prison in the elementary school.
About 60 people have been through the prison this month, said Mohammed Nouh, the head guard. A prison office collects testimony from residents, and a judicial council of lawyers and Islamic clerics reviews cases. Most people are released in a few days, Nouh said.
The 10 alleged criminals in the prison one recent afternoon had all been caught in the last week, Nouh said. Each had a mattress and a pillow and access to a toilet behind a curtain down the hall. The guards brought plastic razors so the men could shave.
Nouh said the prisoner with the bruised head and arm was a regime spy.
"Lots of people said he’s an informer, that he was giving coordinates to the regime," he said.
During an interview away from the guards, Mohammed Abeid, 42, said he’d been arrested because he worked for a government company.
"They arrested me because they say that I belong to the regime," he said. "It’s not true."
He said he had not been abused, had eaten well and spoken to the judicial committee, which had yet to decide his fate.
The town’s other lockup is a bare room in a former government agriculture office that now houses a rebel brigade.
Fifteen men surrendered to the brigade during the post office battle, and 10 were released after rebels determined they hadn’t killed anyone, said Omar Othman, the group’s commander.
Interviewed alone, the five remaining captives said they had not been abused and ate regularly, though they worried the rebels were using them to raise money by demanding ransom.
They had been divided by sect. Othman said three former police officers — all Sunni Muslims like most of the rebels — had been exonerated and would go home soon. The two others were military security officers and Alawites, members of the religious minority of Assad and many in his regime.
While denying that sectarianism influenced the group’s decisions, Othman said the two men had repressed anti-regime protests and that the regime would want them back.
"We want a prisoner exchange, nothing more and nothing less," he said.
Other groups too have used captives to their advantage.
A rebel group in the Aleppo suburb of Kafar Hamra held 13 captured soldiers in their rural, three-story villa. While technically prisoners, the captives moved about freely, ate with the rebels and swam with them in the villa’s pool.
All were Sunni Muslims in their early 20s who had been doing their mandatory military service when caught. Even when interviewed alone, they said they ate better with the rebels than they had in the army and trusted them to get them home.
"Why would I flee?" asked captive Mohammed Kilani, 22. "They are feeding me and giving me cigarettes and we play soccer together and they tell me they’ll get me to my family."
A while later, the uncle of one of the captives paid the rebels $750 to release his nephew, a captured conscript from Damascus.
"It’s fine," Jihad Khalid said of the money. "If they’d asked for more, we would have paid it."
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