When Ahmed Mustafa Mansour, a schoolteacher, went to get bread from his local bakery in Aleppo, he never imagined he would end up in a prison run by Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), a jihadist group with ties to al-Qaeda and active in Syria.
Mansour's troubles began shortly after he arrived at the bakery, where he got into an argument with a person going by the name "Abu Hassan".
"This person controlled the distribution process blatantly, giving preference to JAN supporters over neutral people or supporters of the leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)," Mansour told Al-Shorfa.
The verbal fight soon escalated into pushing and shoving.
"Seconds later I was arrested by a group present in the area and taken to a house, three rooms of which had been converted into a prison," he said.
Mansour said the rooms were fitted with strong iron gates.
"Dozens of Syrians from the area and beyond were inside [the makeshift prison]. None of them had anything to do with the Syrian regime; they were civilians or resistance fighters," he added.
A group of gunmen approached him, identifying themselves as member of JAN's "sharia committee". They charged him with disobeying the orders of the "Guardian" and gave him a "commuted" sentence of 40 lashes to be meted out at once, after which he was detained for three weeks then released with others.
Mansour, who now resides in Lebanon, said he was not the only one tried in this fashion.
Other detainees he met had similar stories. Some had refused to wear the jihadi outfit in battle and were imprisoned for it. One "insulted religion" and another refused to force his wife to wear sharia-compliant clothes, a condition required to receive relief supply rations.
Mansour said he moved to Beirut "to escape the hell of what is happening in the liberated areas", adding, "The epitome of irony, however, is that I escaped from Syria and the tyranny of these religious groups with the assistance of those same groups, who transported me to Lebanese territory for $300."
"They are even imposing jizya (tribute) on anyone who tries to escape to Lebanon or other countries; they seize whatever money or jewellery they have on the pretext this is support for the mujahedeen and their steadfastness," he said.
Stories abound in the media about JAN's practises in areas they wrested from the Syrian regime. While the group has presented itself as an opposition force fighting the regime, its long-term goal of imposing extremist Islamist rule has become more apparent, with reports of JAN clashing with local residents increasing.
"Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra li ahl al-Sham, because of the takfiri jihadi ideas it believes, has become a formidable force on the ground, dealing viciously not only with regime forces in battle but also with Syrians in liberated areas who oppose its ideas," said retired Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Ahmed, an Egyptian military analyst who specialises in the affairs of takfiri groups.
He told Al-Shorfa JAN's objectives are no different from those of al-Qaeda: namely, to establish full Islamist rule in the form of emirates spread across Arab and Islamic regions, ultimately united under the banner of one Islamist state.
After observing the movements of these groups, it is "clear they receive considerable logistical and financial support, as well as ample food supplies, which they use as a source of pressure, to control people's fates and force them under the groups' banner, or at least force people to not oppose them", according to Ahmed.
JAN's ranks include not only Syrian nationals but also nationals of the countries it receives support from, in addition to Gulf, European, Arab and Chechen fighters, he said.
In areas of Idlib province, JAN has been trying to replicate a model it has imposed in Aleppo, according to Ahmad Kaddour, a spokesman for Sham News Network.
"JAN elements are trying to assert control over 'everything', from providing citizens with basic services and fuel, to interfering in civil life, to the extent that JAN is now in charge of relief [efforts] in Aleppo, which it could not do in Idlib and Saraqeb," said Kaddour, who resides in Saraqeb.
In January, reports emerged that JAN members expelled foreign correspondents from a cultural centre in Saraqeb, forced women journalists to wear headscarves and gave preference to male over female journalists.
According to Kaddour, Saraqeb residents staged demonstrations to protest the action and submitted a complaint against the group to the court system run by the Syrian opposition.
Kaddour said the issue was resolved "peacefully".
"We received promises from them there would be no harassment of media staff and journalists in the future," he told Al-Shorfa.
Civil life and relief efforts in Saraqeb are still controlled by local councils, he said, which do "not allow any interference in civilian matters, whether by JAN, the FSA or any other military group".
Any renewed actions by JAN to interfere will invite "a second uprising against them", Kaddour said.
While some local Idlib councils are still deterring the spread of extremism, other Idlib residents paint a more pessimistic picture.
Suleiman Kazem Abdul Razzaq, a native of rural Idlib who arrived in Egypt a month ago after fleeing to Jordan, told Al-Shorfa JAN has expanded its presence considerably on the ground.
JAN members are harassing those who do not subscribe to their ideas by "controlling food and supply rations and imposing the Islamic hijab on women, even on girls younger than 10 years old", he said.
Abdul Razzaq, who worked with the opposition's local co-ordination committees, said some relief groups avoid entering certain areas for fear their supplies will be stolen by JAN-affiliated groups. Such groups seek to impose their rule by controlling relief distribution methods and specifying who benefits from the relief, he said.
Despite the establishment of local councils and Islamic courts, whose decisions are meant to be binding on everyone in the liberated areas, JAN runs its own sharia court and security apparatus, he said.
"JAN carries out arrests and refers [the arrested] to the sharia court, a process that usually ends with [the court handing down] a flogging sentence, which is now the fashion," Abdul Razzaq said.
Many citizens in those areas are poor and destitute and cannot speak about or disclose their suffering, he said.
"The majority [of people] in areas under JAN's full control cannot meet the cost of fleeing to other areas or the cost of their daily sustenance, so they are forced to stay silent and go along with those orders and [court] rulings," he said.
Members of the Syrian opposition have repeatedly distanced themselves from groups such as JAN.
"Do not fear for Syria because of the religious extremists, for in reality, Syrian society does not accept those extremist ideas and has historically rejected them as alien to its fabric, and it will oppose them in the future as it does now," Abdulbaset Sieda, former head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and member of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, told Al-Shorfa.
In January 2012, JAN leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, who nicknamed himself "the conqueror", said JAN had come "to restore the authority of God to his land and avenge violated honour" when he formally announced the formation of the organisation.
In a recent study by the Quilliam Foundation, former Libyan jihadist Noman Benotman and researcher Roisin Blake warned that should President Bashar Assad fall, JAN members would attack the other opposition immediately or "occupy strategic places to negotiate their own ends".
"[JAN] overestimated the religious loyalty of the Syrian people, just as [al-Qaeda in Iraq] did in the 2000s," the two researchers wrote in the study. "Syrian culture is not naturally conducive to Islamist governance, given the religious pluralism and history of relative religious freedom and tolerance" in the Levant.
JAN also "overestimated the level of popular support for them in Syria", they said. "They see themselves as representatives of Syria's Sunni population, which is a dangerous falsehood. Even amongst the rebels, only a minority shares their ideology and goals, with many others, tens of thousands of activists, calling for a democratic system of government rather than an Islamist state."
Both Mansour and Abdul Razzaq said they hope for a brighter future for their country. Before the crisis started, Abdul Razzaq supported the regime, and Mansour the opposition. Now, they both said, they just hope for "democracy and freedom" to prevail in their homeland.
As for Kaddour, he said problems in his town began to surface when "religious extremism" began to emerge.
"It is true the majority of population in the liberated areas is Muslim; they, however, adhere to moderate Islam and a high percentage of them are opposed to the spread of religious extremism and stand against extremists," he said.