Middle East

Damascus suburb becomes focal point for Syrian protests

AMMAN: Syrian protests which broke out in the southern city of Daraa nearly three weeks ago have taken root in an urban center near Damascus, where thousands gather every night to mourn demonstrators shot dead by security forces.

The suburb of Douma has emerged as a new focus of defiance against the 11-year rule of President Bashar Assad, shaken by the protests which spread across Syria.

A key demand of protesters has been an end to a decades-old emergency law, which lawyers and activists say has been used by authorities to stifle opposition, justify arbitrary arrests and give free rein to secret police in the country of 20 million.

Witnesses say thousands of people have been gathering at night in front of the Big Mosque in Douma, a few kilometers north of Damascus, to pay tribute to 10 protesters shot dead by security forces during a demonstration Friday.

Authorities have blamed “armed groups” for opening fire and killing an unspecified number of citizens and security forces in Douma April 1.

Witnesses said security forces were out in strength Wednesday in Daraa, where many shops were shut in solidarity with the Douma victims. But residents said security forces kept a low profile in Douma, home to hundreds of thousands, giving it an air of freedom they say they have not felt in decades.

“Douma feels like a liberated city. But we have no illusions that this is temporary, and that the secret police have withdrawn to their headquarters only to absorb the rage in the streets,” one of the residents said.

“The Friday massacre is not forgotten. People are afraid of a repeat this Friday,” another resident said.

Residents said funerals for two protesters who died of their wounds were held Tuesday.

Thousands of people had attended the mass funeral for the other eight Sunday, which turned into a protest against the rule of Assad’s Baath Party, in power since a 1963 coup.

Civic and religious leaders have descended on Douma to offer condolences. The area in front of the mosque has turned into a rallying ground for people calling for freedoms and unity.

“Freedom is a birthright. No one can grant it. Not the state, nor the ruler. The great people went out in the streets to take their rights without carrying a gun,” Sheikh Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the independent Islamic Civilization society, told a large crowd of mourners Tuesday night.

“They called, and we call with them: peaceful, peaceful, peaceful,” echoing the cry adopted by pro-democracy protestors during their successful popular revolution in Egypt.

The crowd erupted in chants: “Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. Freedom, freedom, freedom. The Syrian people are rebels. The Syrian people are one.”

Douma, a conservative suburb, has a history of opposing autocratic rule. Residents said they have formed popular committees to guide protests, echoing councils set up during Ottoman rule to oppose what was then viewed as an oppressive central government. The suburb is wealthier than other outlying areas of the capital and residents pride themselves on being highly educated.

They recall that on the eve of the French occupation of Syria in 1920, religious leaders met in Douma and issued a call for people to volunteer and fight the new colonialists. After the French decreed an unpopular Constitution for Syria 12 years later, 1,500 people from Douma took to the streets as police fired bullets into the crowd.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 08, 2011, on page 9.

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