Syrians on edge as UN teams bring precarious peace – until night falls

The rubbish has been collected but snipers kill people after dark. Patrick Cockburn reports from a Damascus suburb

Damascus

Soldiers guard earth barricades surrounding Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, while tough-looking militants control the streets. It is a stalemate which neither side, for the moment, is willing to break.

On seeing UN vehicles, passers-by shout anti-government slogans amid chants of "God is Great". A boy rips open his shirt to reveal white bandages on his chest which he also tries to remove, to show what look like burns underneath. "It may look safe in the daytime, but after 7pm snipers in high buildings shoot people walking in the streets," says a man riding a red motor scooter. "They shot two children and three young men last night."

A crying woman, veiled and in the black robes worn by most women in this conservative Muslim district, says her son was arrested six weeks earlier and she had not seen him since.

For all their complaints of snipers, arbitrary arrests and disappearances, the crowd of a hundred people in the centre of Douma do not appear frightened that they will be attacked by government forces. About a third of the shops are open. Mobile phones do not work but somebody has collected the rubbish, unlike in the embattled city of Homs where it lies in rotting heaps. Local militants are well-organised, with disciplined young men in a sort of uniform of black shirt and trousers guarding the door of a mosque that serves as their headquarters.

"The Muslim Brotherhood has always been strong in Douma," explains a Christian observer. An official from the mosque says: "This struggle goes back a long way." He offers to show us the outside of a house belonging to a militant that was sealed in 1980 during the last Sunni Muslim rebellion and had never been reopened.

Inside the mosque, a team from the UN Supervision Mission in Syria(Unsmis), which has 300 monitors in the country, are seeking to mediate between local militant leaders and the government. Discussion revolves around immediate issues such as detainees, sniping, access to hospitals and the restoration of services.

Although people in Douma vocally claim the UN is doing them no good, they want more UN monitors, particularly if they can be stationed in Douma at night. Martin Griffiths, the deputy head of Unsmis, acknowledges: "Where they are present violence tends to reduce. If we had four brave [UN] observers staying overnight in Douma it would make a difference." He adds that until there is a reduction of violence, there can be no real political dialogue.

Douma, a suburb of at least 180,000 people, shows few signs of physical damage aside from some buildings pock-marked with bullet holes. Local people complain of killings, disappearances and destructive searches, but not of buildings being destroyed. Nevertheless, perceptions of the violence within Syria are very much determined by rumour and YouTube postings by the opposition. Many people six miles away in central Damascus are convinced that Douma, which they dare not visit, has been pounded into ruins. "Maybe the government did not let you see all the city," a politically moderate businessman says disbelievingly, but there had been no government officials with us on our visit to Douma.

The violence is much worse further north. Taxi and bus drivers will often refuse to risk the road to Aleppo, which passes through rebel-held territory around Homs and Hama. The UN confirms that this week there has been heavy fighting at Rastan on the main road north of Homs. "There are many defectors from the Syrian army fighting there," a UN official says.

While the Syrian army is meant to withdraw heavy weapons from city centres under the terms of the Kofi Annan ceasefire agreement on 12 April, it can keep them to guard main roads.

Although some international diplomats outside Syria say Mr Annan's ceasefire has failed, many Syrians believe the violence could get much worse. The Syrian army could launch more assaults backed by heavy armour and artillery on insurgent held areas. Reflecting this, a popular saying in Damascus is that "the Minister of Defence has not yet got out of his pyjamas". According to a statement by Unsmis, over the past six weeks, since the Annan ceasefire, the "level of offensive military operations by government forces decreased significantly" while there has been "an increase in militant attacks and targeted killings". A report published this week by another UN team, which has not been allowed to enter Syria, said both sides were carrying out human rights violations, but blamed the majority of them on the government.

Greater Damascus is mostly quiet, with Douma its most violent area. The capital's five million population has been swollen by at least 400,000 refugees from Homs. Many are living in hotels and apartments previously occupied by pilgrims from Iraq and Iran visiting Shia shrines. The banking system has been paralysed by sanctions.

But the degree of economic calamity has been exaggerated, economists say. Nabil Sukkar, the managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment and a former World Bank official, says: "The economy is hurting but it is not collapsing." He points out that the biggest sector is agriculture and rains have been good, tourism is not as important as in Egypt or Lebanon, and what has been worst affected is oil exports. Even in Douma the vegetable market is open and in Damascus there is a minor building boom as people illegally add several stories to apartment buildings on the grounds that the government is too preoccupied to enforce regulations.

Mass detentions have, however, created an atmosphere of fear in the capital, according to one diplomat. "People are more frightened than they were last November and December," he says. "The government is stronger, but so is the armed opposition."

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