Thursday, September 20, 2012

Extensive report from Syria

This is from a correspondent-at-large for Angry Arab who was in Syria and who visited different places in the country.  For her protection, her identify won't be revealed:

"I do not claim to have spent enough time to offer a deep analysis but I have been to places many of those reporting on Syria have not been to, that is if they have been to Syria at all, and conversed for hours with many many Syrians on both sides.
The impression to anyone who comes to Damascus, is that the fall of the regime is farfetched. Despite surrounding fighting and destruction in Rural Damascus, life seems to be going, somehow. There is general sadness in the air, yes. Even people here talk of ka’aba bil jaw. I have never seen Souk Al Hamidiyyeh that empty. For shop owners there, their businesses are ruined. No more tourists for more than a year and a half. One told me: we are losing in millions. All of this is a constant reminder along with the sounds of explosions (in nearby towns) that everything is not okay. But people got used to it. This is however not an indication that the end is soon. Even the officials here admit that Syria is going through a serious crisis but are confident. They try to undermine the reasons but not the consequences. They do not mind showing the destruction, they blame the terrorist groups for it. The regime propaganda unlike the opposition’s is consistent. They speak in one voice. The rhetoric of the terrorist groups is the same whenever you meet officials, low to high ranking officials. They do believe it and the opposition is helping them a lot prove it.  In the past months I have been meeting with refugees. The impressions you get from talking to them is that Syria is gone. You leave with the impression that the regime lost all kind of legitimacy or support. They tell you that their homes are destroyed, burned, or flattened. They talk of huge destruction, etc. but coming to Damascus, you get a totally different impression. Damascus does seem peaceful, maybe it gives you a false sense of safety but somehow you know it is safe.  People are out even at night, restaurants, cafes, and shops are open. I didn’t see checkpoints or tanks or armed soldiers inside the city centre. The military in the streets of Beirut are more than in here. On the way to Damascus on the international highway (from the border), yes, I could see the smoke, many checkpoints, some damages in a few buildings, but once you arrive, you see the same beautiful Damascus. That was relieving. You would say it is hypocrite for people living here to be leading a normal life, going out while other parts of their country is being shelled. Truth is you cannot say that all these people are regime supporters. I talked to some young Syrians in Damascus, many of them oppose the regime, though they do not necessarily support the opposition. You have those who hate both the SNC and the regime, those who hate the regime to an extent that they are willing to excuse all wrongdoings of the opposition, those who do not necessarily heart Bashar but are skeptic of the alternative and can be apologetic to the regime, and of course regime supporters. Syrians are much less polarized than the Lebanese though, yes some do accuse fellow Syrians of being a shabih or a traitor, but the average Syrian, the non activist less so. At the end of the day, they do care, and want this to end. Some want it to end at any cost. They see a futility in this war and want their lives back.  The political discourse is so rich here.  It is not black and white neither among the supporters nor the opponents. One regime opponent told me he only respects Haytham Manna’, he is against foreign intervention, he said he respects Hassan Nasrallah and Suleiman Frangieh (yeah I was surprised too) but he hates Bashar. These people were discussing politics openly though they are not all on one side. It was impressive to see that. They remind you that when it started people were only calling for changing the governor of Daraa. No one called for a regime change and that even after, they called for reforms, and that it wasn’t until Bashar “insulted” them in his speeches that people started calling for the fall of the regime. They blame Bashar in person for this. I heard this even from someone who wants him to stay. All of this though does not change the fact that Damascus is still run by the same regime, it is totally under control, it does not seem to be slipping anytime soon; but all political discourses seem to be more tolerated now. You have those who oppose the regime but look at army soldiers with pity and say: this soldier is poor and cannot be blamed. The army should not be targeted, etc. Outside Damascus, it is a different story. Hajar Al Aswad, for instance, used to have about half a million population, the highest concentration in Damascus, is there. About a month and a half ago, when the fighting started there (after the militants were flushed out of other areas)- Hajar Al Aswad has a strategic significance- the militants chose to move it there. Most of its inhabitants now left. I was told, but cannot confirm, that the regime warned civilians and gave them time to leave before they started their military operation. Most inhabitants fled to Rural Damascus. Some 5000 families in hajar Al-Aswad who are originally from the Golan heights fled to Quneitra (these people left Golan heights on the wake of the 67 war and went to Hajjar Al Aswad). Unlike among refugees, the FSA is not very popular inside, even among anti-regime people. They blame the FSA for the destruction, actually for the useless destruction, while also seeing that it is the regime that is killing. They learned from Baba Amr and do not want to lose their homes for nothing. A guy from Hajar Al Asswad, who is anti-Assad, told me that when the FSA came, the people asked them to leave, the FSA told them: we are sacrificing our lives for you and you cannot sacrifice your homes!!. He told me: no we do not want to sacrifice our homes. They will only bring destruction and then lose and leave.
In Homs, the destruction is huge but not everywhere, I have to say. In some places, houses are not recognizable, example Jouret el Chiyah in old Homs is a crumbled village, it is turned into a huge mountain of cement. We could not go in but we could see it from the outskirt. The damage is in the old city mainly. I had different reactions: When I first entered Homs, the city centre looked very normal. There was traffic, young people going to university, the souk of vegetables is open. Except for the checkpoints every few meters, you would say, there was no war here. Then in the afternoon around 6:00, suddenly the streets are empty and you start hearing the shelling. In some places I went to, I was shocked; I could not believe this is Syria. Every single building endured some damages of different degrees. You could tell there that the shelling was indiscriminate. In other places, you see specific targets damaged while the rest is not. In places like Baba Amr, the damage is huge. It is now fully under government control but who do they control? the place is still deserted. They say 2000 families returned. I saw only a few (much less than 2000 for sure, I would say maybe 200). Some neighborhoods are totally deserted. When they talk of ghost towns, it is true. The walls are littered with pro-Bashar slogans, and anti ‘Ar’our writings. They wrote on garbage bins: donate to ‘Ar’our.  In baba Amr I did not see one man, only women and children. But my main surprise is that the regime has isolated the fighting areas, creating "normal life zones" right next to "fighting zones". They are literally besieged, as if the fighting is in a neighboring country. People got used to the sounds of explosions. I was even told this joke:  A guy in Homs goes to the balcony holding his baby, his neighbor sees him and shouts: what are you doing on the balcony, can’t you hear the shelling? go inside. The guy replies: Trying to make my baby sleep!. This is how much they got used to these sounds that they stopped hearing them. In Homs, there are some Alawite villages, clearly the regime has supporters there as well. There are checkpoints in the city centre but they do not check every car. You can survive in the city even if you are a regime opponent (as long as you do not participate in anything of course). The regime does control the city and all the main highways - on the highways, checking cars is more frequent. They stopped a truck carrying potatos, and were searching each and every bag. The old city in Homs is deserted so where they are shelling, there are only militants. Barely any civilian stayed behind. The displaced assure you that in their villages in the old city there is no one left. No one and nothing can enter the old city (like Jouret el chiah, al hamidiyeh, al khaldiyeh, al qousour, etc.). The sounds of explosions are loud and get louder at night. I could not hear the FSA reaction to that so I think at this rate, they will soon be finished. But you can imagine that it will reveal a huge destruction after. The discrepancy from one place to another is remarkable. There are clear hotspot areas, or pockets of fighting, and where it is safe you have a displacement problem. So everyone feels the crisis one way or another." 

Pictures will follow.