x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A harvest of tears for Syria's rebel farmers

Rural villages in Deraa province were among the first to join the uprising. Still fighting a year later, they pay a heavy price, reports Phil Sands, foreign correspondent.

Rural villages in Deraa province were among the first to join the uprising. Still fighting a year later, they pay a heavy price, reports Phil Sands, foreign correspondent

DAMASCUS // Agriculture has long dominated the rhythms of life in the Deraa countryside, but rural communities have now settled into the new routines of revolution - protests, security raids, flight, hardship and defiance.

Like dozens of other villages in the fertile plains of Houran, Taybeh joined the uprising when it first erupted in the provincial capital, Deraa, 15km to the west.

Its dogged persistence a year later is symbolic of how deeply the uprising has taken root across much of Syria, seeping into the very fibre of a country that for decades had been mutely apolitical.

While cities such as Homs, Hama and Deraa itself are of greater strategic importance for a regime struggling to put down the revolt, villages such as Taybeh continue to fight, refusing to submit to an authority that has ruled since the 1970s.

"I have no regrets about the revolution. Syria has now risen against its unjust leaders, exactly as the people of Europe rose against their kings; all we ask is for freedom and justice and we will not turn back," said Mohammad Zaubie, a Taybeh resident in his sixties.

Mr Zaubie's son, Yusif, was fatally shot in the head at a protest on April 29 last year, killed instantly by security forces policing the demonstration, according to local residents and activists. Another two men shot at the same time later died of their wounds.

"Freedom needs to be paid for with blood and it deserves a greater price than the sacrifice of my beloved son," Mr Zaubie said. "Death comes to us all but if we die for a cause, we die with grace and honour."

The rural landscapes of Deraa province, green fields and a mixture of cement-block housing with much older, black stone buildings, have been changed by the uprising. On the outskirts of Taybeh, military forces have cut the roads, either blocking them entirely or setting up dirt-and-sandbag checkpoints that residents say are difficult to pass through, isolating each village from its neighbours and preventing unified demonstrations.

A major route into Taybeh, via the nearby village of Saida, is guarded by uniformed soldiers manning a large-calibre anti-aircraft gun, mounted on the back of a white civilian flatbed truck. Its long twin barrels point down the road just above head height.

This type of heavy weapon is supposed to have been pulled out of all residential areas under the six-point peace plan agreed to last month between the United Nations and the Syrian authorities.

Next to the government's fighting positions, pro-regime graffiti has been scrawled on the wall. But a hundred metres or so away, the first few anti-regime slogans appear, giving way to a flood further on. Inside the security cordon, Taybeh has carved out a relatively free space for itself.

Protests involving about 1,000 people are held twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays - snap raids by security forces permitting - with local activists organising sit-ins, street theatre and performances by musicians.

They regularly show a 10-minute documentary on Taybeh's role in the revolt, put together from shaky phone video footage, tracking the first protests and the bloodily suppressed marches on Deraa when villagers tried, unsuccessfully, to break the military siege on the city a year ago.

Seven residents of Taybeh, a village with a population of about 10,000, have been killed by security forces since last March, with scores more wounded and arrested, according to local activists.

They keep a paper file documenting many of the incidents, stained by water because it gets buried in the soil to prevent security agents finding it during raids. Security forces still enter the area, in large numbers and with military support, wary of the rebel Free Syrian Army which continues to operate in the countryside.

"When this started, we just wanted to topple the [provincial] governor, not the president, but when they started killing us, the revolution just spread and got stronger," said Ameen, a protest organiser from the area.

"We just wanted some political reforms at the start but now the whole of Deraa countryside is taking part and we are facing a military occupation by our own government."

Many of Taybeh's protesters and activists have fled the village, and residents say thousands of inhabitants have sought safety across the border in Jordan, or in other parts of Syria.

The effect on the local economy has been huge, with fewer hands to work in the fields. Those who have stayed behind say the farmlands have been neglected, with people too afraid to plant and harvest crops given the heavy army presence of security units, or unable to pass through the military cordon.

"There is nothing really left here now, people have been arrested, shops and homes have been raided and burnt, many people have fled and the economic situation is very difficult," said Um Mohammad, an elderly mother of five from Taybeh.

One of her sons, Ahmed, 42, has been missing since his arrest seven months ago for taking part in a demonstration.

Nevertheless, she said the village was united in its determination to push on with the revolt.

"By God's will we will be successful, the revolution has given us grace and dignity at last," she said.