Thursday, July 26, 2012

Refugees tell of horror in Damascus

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Bassem Nemeh]

In a school nestled in the heart of a sleepy village on the eastern extremities of the Bekaa Valley, 22 Syrian families have been sleeping on straw mats since fleeing the violence of their homes last Thursday. Unlike other Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who tend to hail from the Homs vicinity, these new arrivals are from Damascus, which saw an extraordinary surge in violence last week when the opposition Free Syria Army (FSA) launched a major assault on government forces. While more affluent Damascenes took to hotels in Beirut and the mountains, these families had no choice but to take their chances with Lebanese hospitality.

Mostly women and children, their fear is as palpable as it is understandable—they are, after all, just ten minutes from the Syrian border. When NOW Lebanon arrived, a television crew tried in vain to convince them to talk on camera. They were very reluctant to speak to us too, and absolutely refused to be photographed. “Those who have spoken to the media or who are active online get killed,” explained one. “If they cannot find them, they kill their families and loot their houses.” But once they open up, they talk for hours.

And they tell of horror. “The stench of dead bodies is unbearable,” said Abu Firas, who left Damascus three days ago. “There are tanks everywhere. Hay al-Midan and al-Qaa are completely surrounded and are being constantly and indiscriminately shelled by armored vehicles and the air force. The Palestinian camp is totally wrecked. Corpses, with clear signs of torture, are left in bins in residential areas.”

“I was at a funeral in Zamalka when we heard an explosion and gunfire,” said Abu Ibrahim. “We thought it was a scare tactic, but then people around me started getting shot. Two people died.

“Duma is now the second Homs,” said Abu Sami. “They destroyed their own capital; it’s like a scorched-earth policy. It doesn’t even matter if you’re anti-regime or not—my neighbor is a loyalist and his car got burned.”

“In al-Tadamon, we were under constant bombardment until we left a few days ago,” says Umm Rashid. “The regime tried to take my husband away, saying he was a weapons dealer, but he was released due to a mistaken identity, they said. My brother-in-law wasn’t so lucky—he was kidnapped by the army for 45 days and came back tortured.”

They describe a heavy, but ill-equipped FSA presence in Damascus today. “The FSA is certainly fighting, but what can they do against tanks?” asked Abu Firas. “They only have light arms or, at best, an RPG. One fighter runs down a side-street and a regime plane bombs the entire neighborhood.”

As for the regime, they say it is being aided by paid criminals and even foreign forces. “The only ‘armed gangs’ are the shabiha, the regime’s thugs,” said Abu Firas. “The ones stationed by my house used to be prisoners; I know them by name. Now they wear civilian clothes but are given rifles and bulletproof vests by the regime.”

“They are not only Syrians,” claimed Abu Ammar. “There are also [prominent Iraqi Islamist cleric Muqtada] al-Sadr’s people and around 20,000 Iranians.” Another, Muhammad, said he’d seen shabiha members wearing headbands with Persian writing.

Though impossible to verify, such claims are interesting in light of the fact that, unlike those from other cities who sided with the opposition from the start of the uprising, many Damascene refugees said they weren’t initially hostile to President Bashar al-Assad. Now, however, they speak of FSA fighters with awe. “If the regime were fighting the Israeli army, we would have stayed with Bashar until death. But now, we would join the FSA if we got a chance,” said Abu Ibrahim. “The regime forces you into opposition,” agreed Umm Rashid.

Though they aren’t currently living in squalor, their economic security will deteriorate the longer they remain in exile. And as questions are raised about NGOs’ abilities to provide for their needs, some refugees decline to register for aid in the first place. At another school-turned-refuge in an adjacent village, NOW saw refugees refusing to disclose their names to UNHCR workers, fearing the information would end up in Syrian government hands. At present, their aid comes mainly from the ICRC, the Danish and Norwegian Refugee Councils, and local Islamic charities.

Yet how long they can subsist on these funds is uncertain, and few are expecting a swift return. “Of course we want to go back, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen soon,” said Umm Rashid. “I have a home and some land, so naturally I want to return,” agreed Abu Firas.

“But from what I’ve seen, it will take 10 years for the violence to end.”

The above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

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