Sammy Ketz, AFP
Last updated: 30 August, 2011

Peaceful Damascus suburb turns rebel by night

The suburb of Douma in Syria’s capital has two faces: by day it is a haven of peace where shoppers pack stores, but by night it descends into violence as security forces wade in against anti-regime protesters.

Hours before the Eid al-Fitr feast began on Tuesday, women shuffled across Kuwaitly Avenue to shop for special sweets and other goodies for the celebrations that will mark the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Traffic snarled to a standstill and frustrated motorists honked their horns.

“There were problems, but now it is over,” said Majed Aslan, a 26-year-old who works for a mobile phone provider. “People now go to work and the shops are open.”

Aslan praised the Syrian army for restoring order, and echoed the regime in blaming “armed groups” for sowing chaos in Douma, a huge suburb north of Damascus where residents make a living from agriculture.

The armed forces are “our brothers whose mission is to preserve stability in the face of armed organisations,” he said.

“We are very sad by what is happening in the country. We are sad for each person who was killed, civilians and military alike,” added Aslan.

Douma residents say that at least 300 civilians and 45 soldiers and members of the security forces have been killed in the suburb since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March.

But there is a flip side to this semblance of normality that reigns by day over Douma: signs of the violence that has rattled the suburb 30 kilometres (18 miles) north of Damascus are still visible.

Douma is ringed by security checkpoints.

Most anti-regime slogans scrawled on walls have been hastily covered up with black paint, but some graffiti remain.

One poster reports the death on August 12 of four “martyrs” including a 22-year-old woman, while another says: “We will kneel only before God” — echoing a message posted online in August by anti-regime activists.

Some signs call on the people of Douma to congratulate the families “of those who have been killed by the criminals of security and the shabiha” or pro-regime militiamen of President Bashar al-Assad.

Across the street, a man mutters as he sees AFP correspondents: “Tonight we will set everything on fire.”

His threat can only be real — on Sunday, assailants lobbed petrol bombs at the courthouse for the third time since April.

The ensuing fire ripped through the 1930s building, blackening its facade, damaging ceilings and burning reams of papers and files on cases being investigated by the judicial authorities.

“Masked men did that. They want to destroy their files,” said court clerk Naef Azzar, as a group of employees carried stacks of files that were damaged in the blaze.

The attackers “mingle with peaceful protesters who are demanding reform, in order to carry out criminal acts,” according to Azzar.

“Since the events started I’ve questioned about 500 suspects aged from 12 to 80,” state prosecutor Abdel Karim Khdeir said of people rounded up for allegedly taking part in anti-regime protests.

“All of them denied taking part in any protest and swore that they were at home, in bed, or even out shopping when they were arrested,” he added.

Most Douma residents are afraid to speak to reporters.

But the elderly Omar Boudaini, with his white beard and wearing the traditional abaya flowing robe, was not one of them and wanted to vent his anger.

“On Saturday the shabiha searched my house. They dragged me out of bed, right in front of my wife,” he said.

“I told them I am 80. ‘Where are you taking me?’ I said.

“One of them answered: ‘Even if you’re 100 years old we will arrest you.’

“I told him ‘Shoot me. I’ll be a martyr’,” said Boudaini.

He also said the shabiha militiamen who raided his home robbed him, taking money earmarked for charity.

At Douma town hall, Mayor Ali Haibani admitted he faces an uphill task.

“Douma has two faces but I only have one,” he said.

“I’m trying to convince people that President Assad is determined to carry out reforms.”

But apparently to no avail, since large numbers of protesters continue to rally against the regime in Douma.