A journalist, Christian Clanet managed to enter Syria on a tourist visa. (Foreign media are banned from the country.) On May 25, he arrived in Dara'a, the southwestern city that was the first to rise against Bashar Assad's regime before authorities cracked down, reportedly killing scores of locals and cutting the city off from the outside world. Briefly detained twice, Clanet was ordered to leave the country on May 27.
DARA'A Al-Balad, a neighborhood in the historic district of Dara'a, has become the ghetto of death. Since the end of March, it's been on permanent lockdown, surrounded by the Syrian army. From rooftops and balconies, soldiers shoot those who try to get into or out of the neighborhood. Dara'a is the hotbed of the Syrian uprising, al-Balad its core. It was in this poor neighborhood that the "Syrian spring" came to life on March 16. People rose out of indignation and anger after the military police tortured a dozen teenagers caught painting graffiti imitating the Egyptian revolution that read, "The people want the regime to fall."
Al-Balad went up in flames, and the rest of the city followed. In the ensuing weeks, the uprising spread north to Latakia, Banias, Homs, Hama ... even to the suburbs of Damascus. To crack down on a revolt that was gaining ground, Bashar Assad's regime wanted to show the country what would happen to those who would resist him. As a result, al-Balad is suffering under a merciless siege.
Electricity, water and phone lines have been cut. Without access to supplies, milk and essential foods have run out. The 15,000 residents under lockdown are facing famine. Every day, during the evening prayer, thousands of voices rise above the neighborhood for the rest of the city to hear: "Milk! Water!" they scream, their voices barely muted by bursts of gunfire.
Nearby villagers tried to break the siege on April 29, arriving at Dara'a's gates with gallons of water and olive branches for the soldiers. According to Human Rights Watch, that day more than 200 people died. Residents of nearby neighborhoods are worried about their "besieged" neighbors and the imminent sanitary disaster. There is no hospital in al-Balad, and pharmacy shelves are close to empty.
"I haven't seen my family in two months," says Ali, 19. "They're trapped in al-Balad. I know my mother can no longer feed my two brothers and three sisters. I would like to help them, but I'll be killed if I get close." Hassan, a friend he grew up with in al-Balad, was shot on May 18 as he was trying to take supplies to his family.
Ali was wounded after being shot by a hidden sniper. "Bashar says Islamist mercenaries working for Saudi Arabia and the West want to take control of Syria," he says, clenching his fists. "It's not true! These are not Islamists in the streets, it's us! We, the Syrians of Dara'a!"Dara'a has been under siege since early April, surrounded by a belt of automatic weapons, surface-to-air missiles and tanks all with their barrels facing the city. Tanks have taken over the streets. Soldiers patrol the smallest streets and stand in groups of three at crossroads. A curfew is in place from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Al-Balad is just 15 minutes away from the vegetable market in downtown Dara'a. Streets are blocked by sandbag bunkers, behind which heavily armed soldiers are posted. Others are posted on high balconies. People can still walk on the sidewalks facing the sandbag bunkers but not on the streets reserved for official vehicles. Past that border, only silence.
Hussein, 20, was arrested by the military police and detained for a month in the basement of their headquarters. He says his interrogation could have been worse. "My 17-year-old brother was taken during the April 22 protest. I don't know if he's alive or dead." Hussein says the stadium and the city's schools have been turned into detention centers and that most of Dara'a's families have a member in jail, dead or unaccounted for. Hussein says 4,000 to 5,000 residents are being held in the stadium.
Pointing to the darkened windows of an abandoned house, Hussein says that "there were two surface-to-air batteries here" on the day his brother disappeared. "We were at least 15,000 protesters. Mostly young men but also parents with their children, and the soldiers started shooting." He describes shredded bodies on the asphalt and heavy gunfire. "There was blood everywhere. I hid under a porch, and I could hear the wounded screaming." On the other side of the street, soldiers were hiding in a half-constructed building. "We couldn't help the wounded." Hussein says he counted some 40 people killed. "But I'll never give up. I'd rather die."
In Dara'a, other witnesses talk about arbitrary arrests, dragnets, torture and executions. They say that in order to spread fear, the regime returns mutilated bodies to their families. To describe what happens to some men, a taxi driver mimes chopping off a penis: a final humiliation before death. Several doctors are said to have been executed for helping protesters.
Listed as a "rebel," Ahmed, 29, is under surveillance, suspected by the regime of being one of the leaders of the uprising. "Syria could be freed from Bashar Assad's dictatorship if only we could communicate better and get organized. In Syria, rebels are the majority," he says. "If the rebellion explodes at the same time all over the country, there won't be enough soldiers to hold all the cities. The army is weakening."
Ahmed says that in Dara'a, eight soldiers were executed in front of their brothers in arms because they refused to open fire on the crowd. Anger is gaining ground within the army. "Officers are wearing bulletproof vests to protect themselves from those who have been drafted," he adds. "We can't beat tanks and heavy weapons, but we can try and spread them thin across the country."
As night falls on Dara'a, voices rise from al-Balad, immediately covered by the sound of gunshots: "Allahu Akbar!" Al-Balad's residents are telling the rest of Dara'a that they're still alive.
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