Haaretz exclusive: A visit to the war-torn heart of Syria's struggle for independence
Daraa, home to 100,000 people, and the place in which the Syrian uprising began last year, bears all the features of a town wasting away as a full-blown civil war rages.
DARAA, Syria - During the day, a terrifying calm settles in the old town of this city. The streets are deserted. Shops are closed. Stones, burning tires, broken glass and concrete bricks from last night's battle litter the streets. Heavily armed soldiers are guarding their tight network of checkpoints. They hide behind sandbags next to their tanks, pointing their automatic weapons at the few who dare to roam around.
The Omari Mosque in Daraa, which was once the epicenter of the Syrian uprising and then a field hospital for the wounded, has turned into a fortress for President Bashar Assad's army - much like the entire city.
"Get out of here quickly. There are snipers everywhere," shouts the man working alone in the graveyard. He digs deep into the earth. Two more funerals are to be held today. Like a huge open wound, the long rows of the many new graves are covered only with bare red earth.
Death, detention, destruction: Daraa, home to 100,000 people, just a few miles from the Jordanian border, bears all the features of a town wasting away as a full-blown civil war rages. This is where the uprising against Assad started in mid-March of last year. The demonstrations quickly escalated into street fights, and eventually into a brutal crackdown that shows no sign of coming to a close.
There are no indications that former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, to which the Syrian regime has reportedly agreed, is being implemented.
Members of the UN monitoring mission have shown up in Daraa just twice, and other observers haven't helped much either.
"When the monitors of the Arab League came to Daraa last winter, everyone who was ready to talk to them was arrested," said Jamal, a 36-year-old Daraa resident who lost his job as a banker when he refused to sign a document supporting Assad, shortly after the uprising began. "And we haven't seen them since."
"Our only option is to keep on taking our protest to the streets, no matter what the risks might be," he said.
More than 11,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, according to the Syrian opposition. Of those, 1,385 people have been killed in Daraa alone. And they keep on dying - getting killed by snipers or heavy artillery during the nightly demonstrations, tortured to death in prison.
"Nothing has changed for us here," said Aisha al-Hariri, a 40-year-old woman sitting in a public area of the city's hospital as she waits fro a doctor to treat the feverish young daughter asleep in her lap. "The world couldn't care less. Quite the opposite is true. This plan gives Bashar more time, and most of all maneuvering room, to kill us all."
As for her daughter, al-Hariri said she has little hope that she will find help.
"I am here for nothing," she said. "People like us, who dare to demonstrate against the regime, are not getting treatment any more. Not even our kids. I am so worried about them. No school. No medicine. Not enough food. We raise the kids mainly on a diet of despair and fear."
Al-Hariri did not emerge from the demonstrations unscathed.
"Do you feel the injury?" she asked, placing this reporter's hand on her hip. "I was shot during a demonstration. A doctor in a safe house of the Free Syrian Army treated me, but with so little equipment. The wound will never heal."
The hospital is under siege. Soldiers, policemen and weapons occupy the medical center, in a blatant violation of the cease-fire agreement.
The chatter of waiting patients is interrupted by a moment of eerie silence as Mohammed Asaad, head of the local security forces, arrives. Al-Hariri and the many women next to her, all waiting desperately but stoically for medical help, shower him with bitter glances. There are whispers: "He is a criminal." "Like all of them." "Like Bashar." "All criminals."
Asaad headed straight to the hospital's morgue to display the mutilated body of Rarib Gassas, a 45-year-old policeman.
"He was shot in the night in his house, in front of his wife," the head of the security forces said. "Fifteen armed men stormed his home. Such events happen constantly."
Asaad gives his interpretation of the ongoing battle in Daraa: "We are fighting armed gangs, Islamic terrorists who exploit this uprising and the demonstrations. Those groups are smuggled into Syria from abroad. It is a conspiracy. They don't want freedom. These are criminals we are fighting. All criminals."
Few of Daraa's ordinary citizens would support Asaad's version of events.
"Raise your hands now: Who gets money from abroad?" asked Malik, a construction worker in his late 30s, in an apartment where a dozen anti-government activists were gathering in secret to organize the evening's demonstrations. "Who is an Islamist? Who even prays? Who has a weapon? Who is with the Syrian army?"
Some men raised their hands when Malik asked who prays. None would confess to being an Islamist, receiving funds from abroad, or even having anything to do with the Free Syrian Army.
"In fact we are trapped between all sides, fighting for the power in this country," said Malik. "What is this talk about a peaceful transition? Who asks us? We will never, ever accept Bashar Assad as president. The opposition works abroad. The Free Syrian Army hides someplace and only shows up for brief attacks. The international community has betrayed us. When we started our protests, we saw the images from Benghazi, how NATO sided with the Libyan uprising. We thought: Those who stand up for their rights, their freedom, they are protected. But it was a lie. We are on our own, stranded on a dead-end street."
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