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Darkness Brings Fear to Syrian Town

  • Elizabeth Arrott

In this government hand-out image, Syrian security forces are said to be facing protesters in Douma, near Damascus, December 30, 2011.

In this government hand-out image, Syrian security forces are said to be facing protesters in Douma, near Damascus, December 30, 2011.

Despite a 10-month crackdown on anti-government protests, Syrians in the town of Douma have kept up their defiance of a government many want overthrown.

By day, people in the town on the outskirts of Damascus try to go about their business. But nighttime, they say, holds a different story. This reporter was allowed into Douma by the Syrian government, but only in the presence of an official escort.

The southern entrance to Douma is flanked by checkpoints. Security personnel search cars and trucks as they approach the town, while others stay behind sandbagged positions, manning their guns.

Tensions have run high here for months; the town is a continuing source of unrest on the edge of the capital, but people still must live their lives. Not far from the checkpoint, children walk past a long wall covered in graffiti, hastily painted over to obscure any possible anti-government slogans. Shops are open, though some are riddled with bullet holes.

One shopkeeper looks around with dark resignation:

"You can see for yourself," he says. There is "as much madness as you want."

His friend, Mohammed, explains, disregarding the government minder at his side.

He says demonstrators come out during evening prayers, and security forces soon follow. Mohammed says they "just shoot at random," without trying to avoid targeting elderly men, children or women.

The demonstrators' fear of what happens when darkness falls is shared by the other side.

At the checkpoint, a young guard stands in the bright sunshine of a cold winter day.

Daytime, he says, is calm, but when the sun starts to set, the "terrorists," as he and the Syrian government calls them” start to shoot.

To this guard and the government he serves, the opponents are extremists, and the uprising is a conspiracy fueled from abroad. For good measure, the guard says, drunks and drug dealers are also taking part. Officials say the town is dominated by Salafists.

There are no outward signs of Islamic fundamentalists. But Douma does appear conservative, at least when compared to the capital. Many women are covered completely in black cloth - even their eyes.

One young veiled woman declines to be interviewed, saying she cannot talk to a reporter even though her face is fully obscured. She offers only a passing comment: "The situation is disgusting."

Farther down the street, a man passing by in a truck opens the window to tell of the funeral of a "martyr" - a townsman killed in the unrest, that will get under way soon.

Mohammed predicts this will trigger more gunfire from the security forces.

Syria's uprising has been a conflict of attrition that neither side seems willing to concede. As for what happens next, Mohammed says he doesn't know.

As he has been speaking, a crowd has gathered. Some people call out what they think should happen next.

A "no-fly zone,” says one.

Another suggests a safe haven for the wounded.

The crowd continues to grow. And nearby, security forces get ready for another night.