Syrian city embodies absurdity of civil war

Christoph Reuter reports: In peacetime, 40,000 people lived in Zabadani, Muslims and Christians. Only 3,000 remain — out of defiance, fear or because they’re defending the city. Anyone left stays in the basements or on the ground floors. All buildings are abandoned above the first floor. Land was expensive in the valley, so property developed upward. And the fact that many buildings are five stories high has become a life-saving circumstance. “A direct hit from a tank shell destroys about one floor,” says one of the rebels, who as a construction engineer is familiar with such calculations. “Since they almost always attack from above, we just hide out underground for a while.”

The city is being demolished floor by floor. The army shells Zabadani with a certain regularity, in the morning and in the late afternoon for one to two hours. A few people die every week.

Yet over time the city has developed a tough and sophisticated independent existence. More than a year ago, 50 representatives from the big Zabadani families met to elect a 15-person city council. It now organizes food deliveries, the underground hospital, law enforcement, courts and even the nighttime disposal of rubble. Only when the streets are clear can you drive through them in the dark.

‘We Have Files for Everything’

The council has a budget and a Facebook profile where it registers the money, most of which comes from Syrians in exile. The profile also reports what it does with the money, which has to be carried in cash over the mountains. There’s a basement prison where two soldiers and two burglars are sitting, and even an evidence room for the courts. In its door hangs a standard 21-by-30 centimeter paper listing everything that is required and prohibited: No member of the court may physically or verbally abuse people, and no one can make decisions without authorization.

The prison warden and the chairman of the justice committee, the first a farmer and the second an attorney, describe a new system of law under absurd circumstances. “We have files for every proceeding,” says the attorney. “We inventory the stolen goods so that the owners can claim them. We investigated two cases of homicide.” The murder cases occurred when two groups of rebels mistook each other for government troops and fired at each other.

“And we’re planning to get uniforms for the police,” the attorney continues, “and photo IDs!” It’s preliminary, he concedes, adding that right now they are happy simply to survive until the next day. “That’s exactly why we need institutions and rules, not just people. If one of us dies, the next one has to be able to take over without everything collapsing.” [Continue reading…]

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