Phil Sands reports: For a rather non-descript town of drab cement block buildings on the southern outskirts of Damascus, Daraya in two short months acquired a significance far exceeding its size or the apparent ordinariness of its neighbourhoods.
Until the start of last week’s all-out assault by regime loyalists, which culminated with the alleged massacre of at least 300 people, the community took up the task of governing themselves – a highly emblematic piece of defiance against a regime that has long warned chaos and Islamic extremism would engulf areas outside of its strict control.
Rather than sliding into anarchy after security forces withdrew entirely from the town this summer, Daraya had instead been run with a certain quiet efficiency by opposition activists and volunteers drawn from the town’s 200,000 or so population.
There was no state police in the area, but traffic flowed freely and residents reported little crime. Modest rebuilding projects to repair damage from previous army operations had been carried out, paid for by local donations.
Stores and wood workshops were open, an independent community newspaper was being published and volunteer street cleaners swept and washed down roads. People even queued politely at the local petrol station.
With no security forces on hand to make arrests, activists would stand at major intersections and hand out leaflets designed to educate residents on the key principles of the revolution, as drawn up by committees of local men and women.
The leaflets said there must be equality between all religious and ethnic groups in the new Syria and stressed the importance of ensuring justice and rejecting revenge in dealing with regime officials. They also spelt out that with new freedoms would come enormous responsibilities and duties for every citizen, including caring for the environment and conserving scarce water resources.
Daraya was one of a growing number of places living on the fraying edge of central authority in Syria, but its slide out of the government’s grasp was made all the more remarkable by its proximity to the very centre of power.
Rather than being some outlying village far from Damascus, the town is little more than 5 kilometres away from the capital’s upmarket Mezze embassy district.
The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) sought to keep a low profile in the area. It did not set up checkpoints, fearing it would only bring about a quick, violent response from regime forces. Still, it grew in strength, boasting hundreds of fighters and according to one local activist, perhaps up to 3,000.
That force had proven capable of pushing out police and more lightly armed regime security units earlier this year. Afterwards, the Daraya police station lay ransacked and abandoned, the municipal offices shut.
Without government security forces present in Daraya, the town was poised to become a key staging ground for a renewed assault on Damascus by rebel groups after their attempt last month was beaten down.
Free to move inside Daraya’s urban centre and through the farmland at its edges – Daraya was once famed for its grapes – the insurgents established ties with the residents of the densely populated, working class sprawl that forms southern Damascus and reaches in to the very heart of the capital. [Continue reading…]