Journey into the cradle of rebellion in Deraa

Tue, Feb 7, 2012, 00:00

DERAA: Calm, but not peace, has returned to the city where the uprising began

WE ASK to go to Homs in the north, but are on a bus for Deraa in the south. Homs is the latest flashpoint in the Syrian troubles, whereas Deraa is the cradle of the rebellion that began nearly 11 months ago.

Nonetheless, every seat in the ministry of information minibus is taken by journalists. Television teams from China and Russia and reporters from European newspapers chat cheerily as the bus breaks free of Damascus’s early morning traffic and hits the highway.

There are two checkpoints before we reach the rich green plain of Deraa governorate. We pass groves of young silver-green olive trees, planted in the last 10-20 years; vineyards stripped of their leaves by the winter cold, plastic greenhouses stretched across the ground.

Walls built of rocks harvested from the land delineate fields. A pink villa sports large portraits of presidents Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, the late father and successor, the ruling son.

A pair of grain storage elevators stand tall against the dull grey sky. Sheep feast on fresh grass in hollows, packages of tiles are piled outside a small factory, and clay pots advertise the wares of another firm. Deraa is clearly an industrious area.

As we near Deraa city, the capital of the province, we are met by a police car identified as “protocol”. We speed past soil berms thrown up to protect a military camp from assault by armed insurgents and zigzag through roadblocks designed to slow potential attackers.

There is a mural showing the late president standing with a group of Syrians in jovial mood on a traffic island. The mural is pockmarked by bullets. A huge flag composed of three horizontal stripes of red, white and black with two stars, flies above the city; the rebels have adopted the flag of independence from France in 1946.

Our first stop is the white- and gold-panelled office of the governor, Muhammad Khalid al-Hannous, a white-haired man who announces, pointedly, as traditional Bedouin coffee is served: “You are welcome to

go to the safest places in

Deraa.”

He describes how protests began in Deraa on March 18th last year following the arrest of teenagers who had written anti-regime slogans on walls. Demonstrators burnt public buildings. Assad met Deraa notables and agreed to “most of their demands”, Hannous says.

But protests, punctuated with violence, continued.

“On April 25th, the army entered Deraa and restored calm,” he says.

Calm, not peace. Deraa has since been a hotbed of rebellion fed by arms smuggled from Jordan and Lebanon. He identifies the insurgents as “Muslim fundamentalists, [ultra-orthodox] Salafis and criminals”.

We return to the bus for our tour. Most shops are open, rebel strikes have not had an impact. The streets are filled with cars and people are going about their business. Our first stop is the local radio and television station burnt by fire; our second the courthouse, its interior still reeking of smoke.

“It was built by the French in the 1920s,” says a local man. Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser addressed a throng from the balcony during the union between Syria and Egypt (1958-1961).

Three young sisters strolling in the park opposite the court shyly agree to answer a few questions. Two are seamstresses, the third an elementary school teacher.

“I want to go to my village,” says the round-faced, pink-cheeked girl. “It’s too dangerous these days. We want stability. There must be a solution between the government and the anti-government forces.”

An elderly man clutching three plastic bags of warm bread stands by. He is taking the bread to his village, Dael. Because of the troubles, many villagers must travel to secure supplies. Asked if he would like to comment on the situation, he smiles. “I don’t speak here, I will speak in Dael.”

A dull thump resonates from a distance.

Our last stop is a military base where captured arms, ammunition and home-made mines are on display. Most of the rifles are of Russian make and old, but two are of US manufacture.

On the way home, we see a convoy of troops and tanks on transporters going south. But not necessarily to Deraa. The front line with Israel is only 40km from Deraa.