DERIK, Syria — Residents and militias in Derik have removed almost all the ubiquitous presidential portraits from official buildings since the regime made its exit from the Kurdish town in northeast Syria.
They have also taken down a statue in the town centre of President Bashar Assad’s late father and predecessor Hafez over the past week.
But one place the two leaders still look down from their official portraits is on the wall of the headmaster’s office in the town’s secondary school.
“We don’t have any problem with these pictures,” says English teacher Suzanne, 27.
“Assad is our president. I hope he’ll stay, but I don’t think so,” she adds resignedly.
Before the revolt, “I could do whatever I wanted, I could travel wherever I wanted and now I can’t because of terrorists,” she says, using the standard regime term for rebels fighting to unseat Assad.
The teachers have removed Assad’s portraits from classrooms so as not to be seen as regime collaborators, but have left up the ones in headmaster Adnan’s office, where they sit on couches at break time and chat.
They allow journalists in on their discussions on the anti-regime revolt but ask to be identified only by first name and refuse to have their pictures taken.
“I don’t like Assad at all,” counters Khaled, 34, who teaches the Islamic religion. “I’m against killing and I support the Kurdish language, democracy and freedom.”
Syria’s Kurds, who number over two million and are concentrated in the north and northeast, are fiercely nationalistic but their language has been officially banned under Assad.
Celebrations of the regime’s departure from Derik earlier this month included speeches in Kurdish and Kurdish music blaring out in the town centre.
Computer science teacher Shahinaz, 43, says: “We are doing well without Assad here. We want to learn our Kurdish language, but we don’t like terrorists either.”
“We don’t want other people to teach us freedom. We don’t want anyone from the outside, we can take our freedom ourselves,” she adds, as others nod in agreement.
“I would like the government to change, but peacefully, without killing.”
Adnan takes a neutral stance. “Both sides are killing people and so we are not safe with either,” the headmaster says of the regime and rebels in the conflict that monitors say has so far killed more than 40,000 people since March 2011.
A television in the office is tuned into Al-Arabiya news, which is airing a report on Qatar.
“Here we women are free, not like in Qatar or Saudi Arabia, where they wear the hijab and can’t drive and need [the permission of] a husband for everything,” Suzanne says. “They can’t teach us freedom.”
Sunni-ruled Qatar and Saudi Arabia are among the rebels’ key supporters, providing them with financial and military aid to help topple Iran-backed Assad, who hails from Syria’s Alawite minority, a branch of Shiite Islam.
“I’m a Muslim but I’m moderate,” Khaled says.
“I like the hijab but Islam doesn’t say you have to do this or that. I’ve been teaching here for four years and never had any problem with Christians. She’s not wearing the hijab and that’s fine,” he says pointing towards a female colleague.
None of the female teachers are.
Around 90 per cent of the school’s students are Muslim Kurds, with Muslim and Christian Arabs making up the other 10 per cent, according to the staff.
The school began giving Kurdish language lessons for the first time ever about a month ago, as the regime started to loosen its grip on the region. All students attend these classes, the teachers say.
“We need a good president [when Assad departs]. I don’t care what religion they are,” says Khaled.
The regime has departed relatively peacefully from Kurdish areas in the north, and rebels have accused the Kurds of making agreements with Assad’s forces to cover their departure.
Tensions flared last week with clashes between Islamist rebel fighters and Kurdish militiamen in the Turkish-Syrian border town of Ras Al Ain.
The main Kurdish militia, aligned with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the People’s Defence Units (YPG), which was involved in the liberation of Derik.
The teachers head out of Adnan’s office to give their next classes. “The pictures will come down,” Adnan says. “Not now, but eventually.”