Even as conflict rages across much of Syria, the residents of this rebel-held village in Jabal al-Zawiyah are preparing for a post-Bashar al-Assad future by holding their first free local elections. At a school in Maar Zeita converted into an improvised polling station, the names of 21 candidates are printed on a list posted outside the building. The tiny area\'s 600-odd males of voting age have to choose nine of them for the \"Local Revolutionary Council.\" Nearby, two young men scribbled the names of their preferred candidates on a piece of white paper that serves as a ballot. Others wrote down their choices using the corner of tables to lean on: no polling booths had been set up, so they \"hid\" their preferences with one hand while writing with the other. The atmosphere was relaxed and no incidents were reported during the six hours of voting. Despite the promises of a free vote, only men were allowed to cast ballots. While women have protested alongside their menfolk against the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, one woman told AFP she was prevented from taking part in the village election. Jabal al-Zawiyah is a mountainous region in Syria\'s northwest that has been fiercely hostile to the regime and is regarded by rebels as one of the most independent and secure after more than 16 months of uprising. At the entrance to the polling station, rebels kept watch over the queue that had formed, allowing small groups of voters at a time to filter through. Organisers said most of the voters were teachers and merchants, and a quick look showed diverse types of people casting their ballots -- some dressed in traditional Arab robes, others wearing Western clothing. Inside, behind a table draped in the Syrian rebel flag, the head of the polling station stood alongside several officials who checked voters\' identities and monitored the clear plastic ballot box in which voting slips were deposited. \"Today, I experienced democracy and freedom,\" said one 20-something voter. Another, standing alongside him, added: \"In the past, whether it was for presidential or parliamentary elections, we were obliged to vote for one candidate.\" \"Now, this is the first time we can choose without any influence.\" Local residents recalled how, in previous elections, ballots would consist of a \"choice\" of a single candidate, often parachuted in and appointed by the ruling Baath party, which has been in power in Syria since 1963. This time, the leading vote-getter was a local -- Ahmed Khatib al-Ilmi who was named on 250 of the 433 ballots cast. A few candidates tried to challenge the results after the public count, carried out by cigarette-smoking local officials, and after village leaders called in \"observers\" from nearby areas to ensure the vote was smooth and fair. The polling station chief quickly took charge of the situation, checking the lists of voters against the overall tally of ballots. Shortly afterwards, with the results officially announced, the residents of the tiny village proudly declared they were sure their countrymen in neighbouring areas would soon be able to carry out their own elections as well.