Syria: The Safe-Guarded Secret of Daraya

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A Syrian woman, who has fled clashes between Syrian rebels and regime forces, stands behind a gate at a school where she has taken shelter in the neighborhood of Mazzeh in the Syrian capital on 16 September 2012. (Photo: AFP - Louai Beshara)

By: Marah Mashi

Published Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The town of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, witnessed a horrific massacre late August, the blame for which was thrown at both the regime and the Free Syrian Army. Al-Akhbar visits the area to see how the town is coming to terms with its violent story.

Daraya - At the Syrian army checkpoint leading to the Damascus suburb of Daraya, the soldiers look at ID cards, but rarely ask questions.

The road to this area, known for its furniture factories, is divided by several roadblocks. Here, a valid reason is needed to be granted entrance into the security zone, and we plan to say we’re looking for a couch for our guest room.

Daraya is the town of the famous peace activist Ghiyath Matar who distributed roses and water to Syrian army soldiers. In return, they killed him and cut out his throat, according to fellow activists.

Each side accused the other of his murder during the time when the peaceful revolution of the early days gave way to an armed uprising.

Sameh, our guide from the area, explains where the Syrian artillery positions are, the most important being the Mazzeh Military airport. These points are used to launch attacks against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Daraya, Moademiyah, al-Tadamon, and Bibila.

He warns us not to take pictures. People are hurrying home and the atmosphere is tense, especially with the military presence.

Soldiers are positioned between stores that were recently reopened. Some are rumored to have gone undercover and hidden themselves among the taxi drivers. An unknown car arouses suspicion.

Although Daraya witnessed a massacre on August 25, there are fewer signs of destruction compared to other areas that have seen violent clashes.

The region has known no peace since the beginning of the crisis. There are clear indications that the FSA was in control for a long time. Statements of support can be seen scrawled on walls and buildings, cemetery fences, and scorched shops. They were too many for the army to erase.

“The Free Army Protects Me,” is one slogan painted in the middle of the main street. I want to take a picture, but one of the peddlers is close by, leaning against his cart and carefully watching the passers-by.

The flag of the opposition with its three stars is everywhere. “God Is Great” and “Freedom” are also scrawled on walls and buildings, along with traces of insults and curses against the regime that have been painted over with phrases such as “The Arab Syrian Army Was Here” and “al-Assad or We Burn the Country.”

The cemetery in the center of town remains untouched except for fresh arrivals.

The firehouse and the bakery have been destroyed, but life is slowly returning to some furniture shops and restaurants.

Ziad, a furniture shop owner, refuses to answer our questions, but gets defensive when we point out the piles of debris that still mar the landscape.

“The bulldozers arrived only last week to clean the town and phone lines are being fixed,” he says quickly.

He does not elaborate and seems suspicious of people looking for furniture in a devastated city.

On one corner of main street, Said, a 12-year-old boy, is selling prickly pears. It appears he was clearly instructed not to talk to strangers. He is busy peeling the cactus fruits and would only inform us of the price, 5 Syrian Liras [$0.07] each.

His young companion, Khaled, begins to elaborate, but Said stares at him and he gives us an embarrassed smile. He tells us that the streets are dead at night, and that the furniture shop owners are always calling each other to tell them if the area is quiet or to warn of clashes and snipers.

The other fruit sellers are infuriated by the sight of strangers speaking to the two boys. A young man approaches inquisitively, claiming he wants to buy some Lupin beans. Everyone falls silent for a few minutes and eventually he leaves.

We continue eating the cactus fruit, although we are not hungry. It gives us an excuse to stay and talk to the two young sellers.

“Most displaced families are back,” Said tells us. “They were in al-Liwan and Kfar Sousa. Women, children, and the elderly were in Sahnaya.”

He refuses to answer questions about the massacre. When we asked for the way to the Abu Suleiman al-Dirani mosque, where dozens of residents were found slaughtered, he deliberately points to another one being constructed nearby. The young salesman refuses to take any more money than we owe for the fruits we’ve eaten.

The massacre at the Abu Suleiman al-Dirani mosque was one of the most horrendous atrocities since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. About 120 victims were found there, leading to a worldwide outcry against the Syrian regime, which in turn accused the FSA.

From the outside, the damage to the mosque itself is no worse than that seen on other buildings in the area. Close by, someone has hung a flag with the 3 stars and the words “Syria” and “Palestine.”

Our guide says many Palestinians live in Daraya, as evidenced by the presence of the Palestinian Liberation Army headquarters.

These crimes remain shrouded in mystery. Some say that the Palestinians did not take a clear position supporting the Syrian revolution, and so the FSA killed its officers. Others say that the regular Syrian army was getting rid of Palestinian officers whose loyalties were in doubt.

We exit Daraya the same way we went in, passing by the Syrian army checkpoint. A sign erected at the roadblock dividing Daraya and Moadamiyah reads: “For God and His servants, the Syrian Arab Army has crushed its enemies.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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