x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Inside the Syrian suburb of protest

Escalating violence in a Damascus suburb provides both an insight into the anatomy of Syria's turmoil and a warning of what may lie ahead.

DAMASCUS // The first protest in Hajar Aswad, a tough, working-class district in southern Damascus, was small, brief and peaceful. But that was five weeks ago. Now the neighbourhood is a tinderbox near the heart of Syria's ancient capital.

In Hajar Aswad - its name means "Black Stone" - civilians have been shot dead, a formerly pro-regime cleric is now stoking an anti-government uprising, and long- simmering sectarian tensions are exploding to the surface, as life-long neighbours become enemies overnight and tribes get drawn into a growing conflict.

The escalation, as recounted by local residents, provides both an insight into the anatomy of Syria's turmoil and a warning of what may lie ahead.

It was on March 18 that the first four protesters were gunned down by security forces in Deraa, 100 kilometres south of Damascus, marking the start of the Syrian uprising. Immediately afterwards, a few dozen young men held a demonstration of solidarity in Hajar Aswad.

Thousands of Nazaheen - members of historically Bedouin tribes displaced from the Golan Heights by Syria's war with Israel - live in the neighbourhood, as do members of Hourani tribes from Deraa itself. Mixed in are thousands of settled Palestinian refugees and urban residents from minority communities, including Alawites, who dominate Syria's ruling elite.

Local police decided not to openly confront that initial protest and, after a short time, the demonstrators went home.

In Deraa the bloodshed quickly worsened throughout March, the city becoming a focal point for growing anti-government sentiment. In Hajar Aswad, the atmosphere was more stable. There were protests, but no violence. Many residents are government employees and the neighbourhood is known for providing large numbers of the hard-edged, rank-and-file security officers working the Syrian capital.

But with each passing week, the numbers taking part in the protests grew: first dozens, then more than 50, then hundreds. Last Friday, thousands took to the streets.

It was also Friday that following afternoon prayers, Hajar Aswad was firmly plunged into the centre of this country's crisis, its people adding their blood to that of some 100 Syrians, shot and killed in a single day nationwide as part of a government crackdown.

To date, more than 450 civilians have been killed. As with previous Fridays, the protest started peacefully, with a crowd marching to the district police station. There, according to witnesses, a middle-aged man picked up a rock and threw it at police, other protesters soon following his lead.

The police responded with warning shots aimed harmlessly into the air and used tear gas, breaking up the gathering without anyone being hurt. The crowd moved away.

An hour later, busloads of heavily armed plainclothes security units from outside of Hajar Aswad arrived and, according to residents, immediately took aggressive action, making arrests and shooting close to the demonstrators.

Angered, the protesters marched to local headquarters of the ruling Baath Party, where some began to tear down pictures of President Bashar al Assad. Immediately, residents said, the security forces shot directly into the crowds with live ammunition. Some 50 people were wounded and at least six more killed, among them a 17-year-old high school student named Yaman, the son of a leading local cleric, Abu Bilal.

The previous Friday, in his sermon, Abu Bilal had delivered an hour-and-a-half long speech in the Rahman mosque, telling residents to keep faith with the government, insisting their president would deliver political reforms and that protests were unnecessary. That changed with his son's death. "We heard them calling over the mosque loudspeakers that someone from the Bahaterah tribe had been killed, then there were more announcements, more dead.

People from other tribes, the Hawajeh and Jaatheen," one Hajar Aswad resident said on condition of anonymity, "Then we heard them broadcasting, over and over again, 'We want the downfall of the regime'." As the call from the mosque sounded, more people poured into the streets, rallying to the support of their tribes and fallen neighbours. "It was incredible, there were thousands of men, women and children joining in," one resident recalled. "I've never seen anything like it. There was no fear.

There were teenage boys baring their chests in front of the security. They were willing to die. They were proud to die." As anger swelled, according to a respected member of a leading local family who sympathises with the protesters, government forces themselves came under rifle fire.

"The protests had been peaceful, but after the security killed people, there was fury," he said. "One household in Hajar had weapons and they started to use them."

By the evening, the streets were effectively under control of residents - some by this point armed with metal poles and wooden clubs - with security forces pulled back and surrounding the area. Syria's uprising has been defined by a cycle of protests, shootings and then funerals at which more demonstrators are killed, leading to further rebellion. Hajar Aswad is no different.

After the bloody Friday, there were funerals on Saturday and more violence. At least one more civilian was shot dead. By that time a threatening sectarian edge had developed, with members of the Sunni Muslim tribes, a majority in Hajar Aswad, adamant that three local Alawite families had encouraged security units to set up sniper positions on their roofs. Fearing for their lives, the families fled, returning to the coastal region near Latakia, the Alawites' ancestral lands.

On Sunday, the day after the funerals, leading tribal figures were trying to hold back an angry mob that wanted to burn the Alawite families' properties. "We don't want that to happen, but there's only so much we can do to stop it," said one tribal member, involved at the time in mediation. "We told them [the Alawites] if they want to come back to collect their belongings, they must tell the tribe leaders first so we can escort them in safely, otherwise it will be dangerous for them."

The tribal negotiator, a secular, well-educated man, said he was "dismayed" to see sectarianism flare up. "These people have lived as neighbours in Hajar for 30 years, and now it has come to this, brothers turning against brothers."

Throughout this week, ahead of today's expected protests, tensions continued to simmer as residents talked of tribal customs of martyrdom and revenge "Now the women are pushing their sons to go out in the streets to demonstrate," said a male resident in his 30s. "They talk about it - 'Why don't I have any martyrs in my family?' - to shame the men into going out. Those with martyrs or injuries from the protests boast about their sacrifices."

There has been no formal effort to defuse tensions with the authorities, community leaders said. "There are no lines of communication with the government," said one supporter of the protesters. "It's not because we don't want to come up with a solution to stop more bloodshed. It's because there are no clear decision makers."

Syria's authorities say that as they have made political reforms to meet protesters' legitimate demands, demonstrations have now been hijacked by Islamist militants trying to mount an insurrection. Dozens of security personnel have been killed and injured. The government also insists that it is all that stands between the country and a sectarian civil war.

On Monday, tanks and infantry swept into Deraa to crush the revolt once and for all, while a wave of house raids and arrests by security forces have taken place in Douma, Homs and other protest areas. Protesters in Hajar Aswad have no coherent political strategy, residents admitted.

"People are calling for regime change, but it's true that we have no idea what will happen if that succeeds," said one. "Especially the young, they are just generally angry. They have no prospects, they're poor, they are mistreated by the security, they don't feel they have anything to lose."

Today it will become clear whether Hajar Aswad has been cowed by government force, or if it will once again take to the streets. "I know these people," said one resident, himself from a tribal background. "They will not walk away. They believe in revenge, they will stand together, it's their custom, and it might be violent." "Nobody know what's going to happen from now on," said another resident of Hajar Aswad.

"But if you ask me, this isn't going to go away now. It could all go into chaos. No one is in control anymore."

psands@thenational.ael