UN ceasefire monitors, in the Syrian town of Douma yesterday, saw that the army had not withdrawn tanks in line with a truce agreement and were confronted by residents who complained that the UN observers were just “watching us die”.
A Reuters team that accompanied a two-car UN convoy saw checkpoints on every street corner and a heavy army presence in Douma, at one time known as a stronghold for the armed opposition but now back under government control.
The town of around 500,000 people near the capital Damascus has been a focus of the 14-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
At the entrance to the town, soldiers in full army fatigues were posted at a large checkpoint, some positioned behind sandbags. Along the streets, anti-Assad graffiti had been obscured with black paint, but some remained
“Down with Bashar. No to sectarianism. Long live the Free Army,” read slogans, referring to the Free Syrian Army, a motley collection of army defectors and armed civilians fighting to topple Assad.
“Assad’s army is traitorous,” it said in Arabic, adding in English: “We will not be put down.”
There was pro-government graffiti too. “If you are not one of Assad’s soldiers, you don’t deserve life,” a scribble on one wall read.
“We are the sons of Hafez,” read another, referring to Assad’s late father who ruled Syria for 30 years.
“The situation has now been calm for two days,” said a commanding officer at one large checkpoint. “Sometimes we are shot at at night. Sometimes we respond, sometimes we don’t depending on the scale of the attack.”
A few people gathered in a nearby shop. One resident, Abdullah, said there was shelling and shooting every night, but agreed that the past couple of days had been calmer.
The UN monitors stopped at the checkpoint to ask the soldiers about their weapons. Under an April 12 ceasefire agreement, the Syrian government agreed to “end the use of heavy weapons … and begin (the) pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres”.
A tank was hidden under a large sheet. The monitors took pictures, spoke to an officer in charge and moved on.
Further into the town, another large checkpoint had been established inside what had been a fire station, with a tank parked outside. Trenches had been dug and piles of sandbags with a corrugated iron roof sheltered the troops. Posters of Assad were everywhere.
An officer told the lead monitor, Moroccan Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, that the tank, whose cannon was clearly visible, was in fact an armoured personnel carrier, a more lightly armed vehicle.
“It carries soldiers and wounded,” he said. “If you want, I can take it out of Douma right now,” he said.
“No, no, it’s fine,” Himmiche replied.
Douma’s residents often say the town is like a “ghost city” but yesterday shops were open, factories were operating and people were on the streets, walking past burned out buildings and the ubiquitous checkpoints.
Shoppers crowded the claustrophobic central market.
“Look at the spies,” they said of the monitors, under their breath.
When they first arrived in Syria in mid-April the monitors were given a hero’s welcome by residents who supported the opposition, but many are angry that they have not been able to stop the killing.
Fifty of a planned total of 300 UN observers are now in Syria but, despite their presence, activists report that dozens of people are killed almost every day.
Some shoppers looked angrily at the monitors. Other smiled but cursed quietly in Arabic.
A few stones were thrown at the convoy as it drove through the city and a teenager, apparently confusing the Reuters team for monitors, took off his shoe and waved it at them in an insulting gesture.
“The monitors are doing nothing,” a shopkeeper said. “They are just watching us being killed.”
At a checkpoint on the way out of Douma, monitors saw a third tank, again hidden under a sheet.
An officer guarding the checkpoint said there had been some gunfire on Friday night but that the situation had improved greatly since the week before.
“People are happy that we are here because they want to work,” the officer told Himmiche.
The Syrian government says its troops are in towns to protect civilians from armed groups who are “terrorising populations” and forcing businesses to close.
“The gunmen have now fled to mosques and farms,” the officer told Reuters.
At one of the checkpoints a van with eight people inside was being searched.
When asked by a Reuters journalist about the situation in Douma, they seemed suspicious and worried.
After a moment’s pause, one answered: “The army shoot at people at night.”