The fight for survival in Damascus

Susanne Koelbl reports: Fear protected the Assad regime, but now fear seems to have switched sides, even in the capital. It now haunts army officers when they take the bus home from work, as it does ministerial employees, businesspeople, the rich and those suspected of being loyal to the regime. They are being kidnapped by armed men and locked into basements, sometimes for weeks. The kidnappers often claim that they are rebels with the Free Syrian Army. Some of the victims are burned with lit cigarettes or are left out in the snow, dressed only in their underwear, after ransom money has been paid. It isn’t always clear whether the perpetrators are fighting for a free Syria or are just ordinary criminals.

There is a neighborhood in the western part of Damascus called Mezze 86, inhabited almost exclusively by Alawites. Mezze 86 is the home of modest regime profiteers, the home of hangers-on. Residents work for the economics ministry, the police or the army.

As civil servants, they earn between 10,000 and 30,000 Syrian pounds a month, or €100 to €300 ($135 to $400). Most built their small concrete houses 20 years ago, and posters of Bashar Assad hang on every corner. Assad, an ophthalmologist by profession who received only very superficial military training, apparently tried to look frightening when he was photographed for the posters, wearing dark sunglasses and a general’s uniform, and with a grim expression on his face.

The first car bomb exploded in Mezze 86 in early October. On Nov. 5, a large explosion ripped away an entire row of shops, killing at least 11 people and wounding dozens more.

Hassan Khudir’s little house isn’t far from the site of the bombing. A civil servant in the transportation ministry, he is wearing a corduroy jacket and tie, even at home in his small living room. But as an Alawite, he senses that his orderly old life is over. Khudir, his wife and their four children must fear the revenge of the rebels. “We will all die if there is no reconciliation,” he says.

But the rebels in Damascus are also in mortal danger, like the three young female students in the back room of a Damascus café. They are wearing white hijabs to cover their hair and neck, and they are unwilling to remove their long coats. They are traditional Muslim women, they say. They arrive with two young men.

All five work for Enab Baladi, an underground newspaper and website from the rebel stronghold Daraya, only 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Mezze 86. “Enab Baladi” means “grapes of my country,” a name that is meant to invoke the sweet grapes that once grew in the gardens of Daraya.

The authors of Enab Baladi have documented the destruction that has been visited on Daraya since the army identified the suburb as a terrorist stronghold in the summer. They write, photograph and shoot videos, documenting fighter jets as their drop their deadly loads over Daraya, tanks rumbling through the district and shooting indiscriminately into buildings, and how the army went from house to house on Aug. 25, 2012, dragging supporters of the rebellion and lining them up against walls. Hundreds were shot to death on that day, say the founders of Enab Baladi.

The women have brought along a shaky video as an example. The footage shows the wreckage of a house, as a voice says anxiously, “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar.” The cameraman pushes in the door of the bombed house and steps over upturned tables and cabinets. The body of a man in his mid-40s is lying on his back on the floor, his legs pulled up at an angle. “Allahu akbar,” the cameraman says with a sob. He hurries into the bathroom, where there is another victim on the floor. The camera crew finds a total of three bodies in the house. “Allahu akbar,” they all say, sobbing.

Almost 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed is said to have used the phrase “Allahu akbar” — God is great” — to boost the morale of his soldiers. Muslim fighters use it to this day, including groups affiliated with Al-Qaida, like the Al-Nusra Front.

Enab Baladi is the voice of the survivors of Daraya. The buildings that once housed their schools, post offices and hospitals are in ruins today. But are the rebels of Daraya in fact extremists, as the general claims?

“At first we carried flowers and demonstrated for reforms,” one of the women says in response. “The government invited us to round-table talks. After that they knew who our leaders were and arrested them. We are conservative, but we don’t want a caliphate. We yearn for democracy and humanity.”

Do your allies abduct people? “Yes. We have to exchange them for our relatives and friends who are still in prison.”

Do extremists fight on your side? “How can we be choosy here? We are victims and we are dying. We are grasping at every straw.”

What should a free Syria look like if it is achieved with the help of Islamists like the Al-Nusra group? “If the regime falls, we will fight against Al-Nusra. This here is only the beginning of a long process.”

The articles on Enab Baladi are surprisingly levelheaded, even when, as happened on this day, one of the newspaper’s co-founders was killed in his car when he was hit by shrapnel. But 23 months of war have also poisoned members of the opposition. The struggle against an army that is destroying its own country, and the bitterness over the fact that the Western world has not come to their aid, has shifted internal boundaries, even among the best. “Yes, that’s what has become of us,” one of the two men, a computer science student, says with shame in his voice. [Continue reading…]

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