Residents of a Syrian mountain town near the border with Lebanon greeted a visiting team of U.N. observers on Sunday, chanting slogans against President Bashar al-Assad.
The team, part of a group of 50 observers assessing flashpoints across the country, made their way in two white jeeps followed by journalists to the town of Madaya, 30 km (19 miles) northwest of Damascus, in the foothills of a mountain range separating Lebanon from Syria.
The Sunni Muslim region is a centre of the 14-month uprising against four decades of rule by Assad and his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, who belong to the country’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
“I want my son. Security police took my son, he disappeared eight months ago. He has four children. I want him back,” a weeping woman told the observers.
A bearded man who gave his name as Ahmad, described the town of 20,000 people as a “big prison”, adding the army often put snipers on rooftops.
“Every time we go out on a demonstration they fire at us,” another man said.
The crowd surrounded the observers’ convoy, shouting “welcome”, and pointing to a nearby army checkpoint manned by soldiers in combat gear, who, they said, regularly fired on streets and buildings.
The soldiers denied initiating any fire. “Sometimes we come under fire but we do not respond,” one soldier said.
An elderly man wearing traditional Arab clothes appeared in the middle of the crowd and started chanting in support of the authorities. “Assad is our president. We want Assad,” he shouted, refusing to be silenced by rival chants calling for Assad’s execution.
The Syrian military shelled Madaya and the nearby resort of Zabadani, the scene of regular demonstrations demanding Assad’s removal, for weeks before agreeing with rebels in January on a deal for the two sides to hold their fire.
POSTERS MOCK PARLIAMENTARY POLL
On the road from Madaya to Zabadani, once popular with tourists, pro-Assad graffiti covered the walls. “We are your men, Bashar,” said one.
But in Zabadani itself, pictures of young men killed by Assad’s forces were plastered on shuttered shops and facades of residential buildings.
“Vote for your candidate to parliament, the martyr Nour Adnan al-Dalati,” read one poster, mocking Monday’s parliamentary elections that are touted by the authorities as a showcase of political reform.
“Vote for martyr Issam Hasan Tassa,” said another poster.
Mohran, a demonstrator, said he was hit by live ammunition fired by security forces at an anti-Assad protest, showing two bullets lodged in his leg that he said could not be removed.
“Farmers cannot go to their fields. They (Assad’s forces) are also firing at them,” he said.
An 85-year old man in peasant dress who gave his name as Abu Kamal said troops banned him from reaching his field.
“They told me I cannot go to my land, they also took my son — what do they want from him? He did not do anything,” he said.
Deteriorating economic conditions, however, appeared to be making several people wary of the revolt.
Mohammad, a 29-year old shop owner said he used to take part in the pro-democracy demonstrations but stopped when a minority of protesters took up armed struggle last year.
“Business is very bad. Some went broke and closed down. The security police annoyed the people and drove them to picking up arms; they detained people who had nothing to do with any of this. But honestly, both sides are bad.”
“Now I am just staying home. We wanted to protest peacefully and we wanted freedom but we were not looking for destruction,” he said.
“People are really tired, nobody cares for us. The opposition is pampering itself outside the country in five star hotels and we are paying the price.”