A Syrian Beacon Pays Price for Its Dissent
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
April 27, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — In the besieged city of Dara’a, which has become a symbol of Syria’s uprising, residents on Wednesday told of shortages of bread and even baby formula. Some stick a pole wrapped in a scarf out the door to see whether snipers are lurking. Doctors in a mosque have resorted to using sewing needles to stitch wounds, amid shortages of bandages and disinfectant.
Some spoke of moments of camaraderie in the three-day blockade, as Palestinians from nearby refugee camps ferried canned food and bread by foot to Dara’a, a poor border town in a drought-stricken region where protests last month galvanized nationwide demonstrations. Others spoke of a deepening fear of snipers by day, raids by night and people so scared they would not open their doors, even to neighbors.
“Dara’a and its hinterland are a ghost town,” one resident of the area said as he fled across the border to Jordan on Wednesday. “You can’t go in and you can’t go out.”
Dara’a has become the center stage of an uprising that has posed the greatest challenge to the Assad family’s four decades of rule. While other towns reel from a cycle of protests and funerals for the fallen that turn into more protests, Dara’a is the town the government has sought, through force of arms since Monday, to pummel back into loyalty. For weeks a symbol of people’s anger at arbitrary power, it has now become a test of whether the protests will weather a crackdown in full swing.
In the end, this town may determine whether the government — staggering but still entrenched, playing on fears of chaos in a county still deeply divided by its sects and ethnicities — can reinstill the fear that the protests broke.
“The regime may be able to stop the uprising in two or three weeks with a crackdown,” said Alaa Hourani, a Dara’a resident, “but they cannot finish it forever.”
Almost no foreign journalists are allowed in Syria, much less Dara’a, and an authoritative account of conditions in the town of 75,000 is impossible.
In past days, it has become a caldron of rumors and conflicting sentiments. Over the phone on Wednesday, a man shouted that 150 soldiers had defected to the opposition, but even some human rights activists remained skeptical of decisive splits in the military. Some residents denounced President Bashar al-Assad, while those fleeing across the border said that he still enjoyed their support and that anger was more pronounced against his family — his brother Maher, who leads the Fourth Armored Division, deployed in Dara’a, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, an intelligence chief and deputy chief of staff.
“These are Maher’s people,” said the resident fleeing to Jordan. “They’re barbaric. Nobody can control them except Maher, and Bashar cannot control Maher.”
Across Syria, the siege of Dara’a has become a rallying cry, demonstrating its resonance to an uprising still in search of leadership and coherence.
“‘The people of Dara’a are free!’ ” an activist abroad quoted dissidents shouting during protests in towns on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. “‘Bashar, get out of Dara’a!’” others cried, the activist said.
The protests erupted in Dara’a in March after 15 students were arrested for writing antigovernment graffiti on school walls. “The people want to topple the regime,” the slogans said, in an echo of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Security in the town was run by Atef Najib, a relative of Mr. Assad, and, by most accounts, the youths were tortured.
In the protests that ensued, government buildings were burned, and for weeks, protesters spoke of Dara’a as liberated, or at least no longer under the government’s full control. That ended Monday when eight tanks, soldiers and 30 buses of security officers stormed the town, in what was the military’s most aggressive move against the dissent that has been reported in virtually every province.
The Syrian Army said Wednesday that its troops had deployed to Dara’a and nearby regions to root out “extremist terrorist groups” and that three of its officers had been killed in attacks near the Golan Heights. Syrian television showed images of what it said were machine guns, shotguns, grenades and ammunition confiscated in the town.
But residents described the onslaught as collective punishment, and activists cited witness accounts of more tanks and armor being sent south from Damascus. Reached by satellite phone, they said electricity and phone lines had been cut and had still not been restored. Soldiers fired at water tanks atop houses and apartment buildings, emptying them. Snipers took up positions across the town, and checkpoints were set up on many streets.
“No one’s allowed to walk more than 100 meters,” said another resident who fled across the border with his children.
The town’s sole hospital is closed, and residents said they were afraid to take the wounded there anyway because they would probably be arrested. Abdullah Abazid, one of the few residents to give his name, said that 39 people had been killed in the past two days, and that bodies were still strewn in the street.
Others spoke of shortages of bandages and disinfectant. Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a human rights group, said residents he spoke with told him that doctors were using clothes as bandages and sewing needles to suture wounds.
It was unclear what kind of resistance if any was being offered. On the first day, residents said protesters had tried to block the roads with concrete barricades and cars. Mr. Abazid said Wednesday that protesters had destroyed the stairs to two mosques to prevent snipers from taking positions in the minarets and that people were thrusting wrapped sticks out their front doors to determine whether others snipers were near.
Though he said soldiers had withdrawn from the Omari Mosque, a landmark in the town that has served as a headquarters for demonstrators, they still feared an attack. “People are protecting the mosque with their bare chests,” he said.
In some ways, the isolation of the town was replayed in the isolation of each neighborhood. Residents often knew nothing beyond what was happening on their street, offering accounts over the phone of what they could see from their windows.
“There is a huge element of fear inside the city,” Mr. Tarif said. “People are afraid for their lives, for their families. People are afraid of the night, when houses are raided.”
Reporting was contributed by Ranya Kadri from the Jordanian-Syrian border, Hwaida Saad from Beirut and employees of The New York Times from Beirut and Damascus, Syria.