July 22, 2012 6:06 pm

Army inflicts revenge on Damascus rebels

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In a cemetery in the Damascus district of Qaboun, residents wearing disposable face masks unzipped one of the 17 body bags around them and gazed at the neatly bearded man with a bloody wound in his throat who lay inside.

“It’s Ahmed,” said one. “I heard he is a barber,” said a second, before zipping up the corpse’s cover again in preparation for a brief improvised funeral.

No one wanted to spend much time even on the rituals of death in the shattered streets of Qaboun, where the crushed cars and bullet-ridden buildings told of the previous week’s battles between armed rebels and a government military that residents say responded lethally. As the troops of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, continued to hit back in Damascus on Sunday in response to the most intense fighting there since the country’s 16-month uprising began, the devastation in this rebellious district in the capital’s north-east showed the terrible damage and division being inflicted on the city.

“This is what Bashar wants,” said one onlooker, moments after another man had turned away from the corpses to batter his hands against a pillar in sorrow and rage. “An animal is better than Bashar,” spat another.

As the Qaboun residents grieved, shelling could be heard in various parts of Damascus. Black smoke plumed in the morning over the Kfar Sousah district, just a few hundred metres from the foreign ministry. The area was surrounded by tanks and troops, the latest of a rolling series of regime operations against flashpoint zones where armed rebels rocked it last week.

Refugees from conflict areas again criss-crossed the capital in buses and cars filled to capacity and pick-ups packed with families and supplies. On one of the main highways out of town, a well-dressed Damascus university student and her friends piled into a taxi headed for the third city, Homs.

“We are afraid of everything, so goodbye,” she said, slamming the door shut and driving off.

In Qaboun, a few returning residents picked their way nervously through the war-damaged streets.

Residents said most people had fled after the army began shelling last week from a base not far from the cemetery, with a helicopter also firing on the area.

On a street close to a burnt-out bakery, where squashed tomatoes and smashed crates of vegetables were scattered on the road, a local businessman named Yasser said his house had been robbed of a laptop and between 25,000 and 30,000 Syrian pounds in cash. He blamed government soldiers for the theft.

“This government is the killer government,” he said. “Now the people are not waiting for any help from any countries – they are going to do the revolution by themselves, God help them.”

On the same street, a man named Ahmed pointed to a modern apartment block and said a regime sniper had shot his brother-in-law from there.

Asked whether he thought the Free Syrian Army’s presence had endangered the local population, Ahmad retorted that loyalists had already killed many people in Qaboun by firing on peaceful demonstrations.

“The government is shooting whether the FSA is here or not,” he said. “We lost 42 guys before now – and they were all civilians, from 12 years old to 70.”

There was no obvious sign of either a government security force or Free Syrian Army presence in Qaboun. Residents said the last of the rebel soldiers had withdrawn the previous day. Most of the fighters were from the area, people said, although some had come from Douma and other restive north-eastern suburbs of the capital.

The Syrian regime says its military operations in areas where the Free Syrian Army operates are proportionate to the threat of what it says are terrorist gangs backed by foreign powers. It points to a growing number of credible reports – some acknowledged by anti-regime activists themselves – of armed opposition groups’ involvement in atrocities.

But many independent rights activists say the heavily armed regime is by far the more responsible for the violence in Syria and may well have committed war crimes by bombarding residential areas. The experiences of Qaboun and other rebellious Damascus districts underscore how the Syrian government’s “security solution” allows it to regain physical control of areas at the expense of smashing and alienating whole communities. The arrival of the battle for Syria in central Damascus is making the city’s conflict areas and beyond feel angry, afraid and itinerant.

Down the road from the Qaboun cemetery, flies gathered around the top of a flattened car, where there were remains that residents said were human but were so crushed and charred as to be unrecognisable. “It smells of death, it smells of thieves, it smells of destruction,” said one man standing nearby, who added that he had returned to the area just one hour previously. “People are coming here only to take their stuff – and leave.”

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