Syria unrest: Daring to speak in Douma
- 6 October 2011
- From the section Middle East
As anti-government protests rock Syria, the BBC's Lyse Doucet was granted rare access to the country. She visited the Damascus suburb of Douma, one of the few places in the capital the protests have reached.
Soldiers stand guard at sandbagged checkpoints. The army's green buses are lined up near the main approach, ready to move if troops are called out.
As soon as we cross the first checkpoint with our government minder, we spot more soldiers with light machine guns. In their camouflage khaki they are all but hidden in a dusty olive grove.
We had asked the government for permission to visit this neighbourhood - the first in Damascus where Syrians had taken to the streets after protests erupted in the southern town of Deraa in March.
There have been reports of demonstrations in Douma almost every day since then.
We ended up making up two trips to this neighbourhood.
On our first visit, a group of men described as our escorts hurried us along, refusing every request to film or record.
We asked to stop at a market, a mosque, any place where people gather.
Instead, we were taken to a petrol station and a traffic roundabout. Both were virtually deserted. From what we were able to see, Douma was like a ghost town.
We protested to our escorts that we were being told to leave without speaking to a single resident. We received apologies and a warning we could be attacked by "terrorists".
We complained to the government and were given permission to visit again.
Syrian officials told us a bomb had been discovered on the roadside next to a main Douma roundabout. Three security officials were reportedly killed when they tried to defuse it.
The government insists most protesters belong to armed gangs.
We stopped at the spot where dark blotches, said to be blood, marked the cement. But a small palm tree planted there still swayed in the gentle breeze. Only a few fronds were creased.
One man drove up on a motorcycle, saying in Arabic: "I don't know, I don't know." He pointed to his ears to indicate he hadn't heard an explosion.
A crowd quickly formed. There was confusion over what may have happened here.
I asked our government minder how a bomb powerful enough to kill three people, and wound a few passersby, could leave the tree intact.
"Palm trees are special," he offered, searching for the right words. "It can lean with air and shocks, and then stand back again."
As crowds grew around us, so did the presence of men in shell suits shadowing us, talking on telephones, listening in.
But unlike other neighbourhoods we had visited in Damascus, this did not stop people from speaking their mind.
"My 18-year-old son has been detained," said one man who made his way through the crowd to talk to us.
"We were leaving the mosque, and there was a demonstration outside," he explained, hiding neither his face nor his anger.
"We weren't at the protest, but they started shooting toward us. We were separated, and I saw my son being dragged away."
I asked him why he had decided to tell us his story. "I'm afraid now, " he admitted. "But I've told you my story. What will happen, will happen."
I asked one student about the situation. "It's good," he replied.
Another young man interrupted him: "It's very bad, the government is shooting and killing people."
We moved down the street toward the main mosque.
Young men immediately surround us. Within minutes, they're chanting: "Freedom! Freedom!" And: "Down with the regime!"
Waving their mobile phones in the air, they shout: "The camera is our weapon."
No sooner does this impromptu protest start than we see military buses moving down the street towards the crowds.
We are told we have to leave.
We linger, wanting to see how this looming confrontation unfolds, but are warned we should leave "for the sake of our safety".
The protesters keep chanting. Some young boys tell us the soldiers will soon open fire.
One man slips us a computer memory stick before we drive off.
As we pass the roundabout again, we see it is now flooded with soldiers.
Later, we look at the contents of the memory stick and find grainy footage of clashes.
A narrator says it is from Douma, filmed in August and early September. Soldiers are shown opening fire on protesters and picking up bullet cases from the street to hide the evidence.
We can not verify this footage. Even our two trips to Douma with the government made it hard to establish what was really happening there, day in and day out.
But we saw enough to know this Damascus suburb is a changed place, and will never be the same.
Douma is a short drive on the highway heading south from the centre of Damascus. But it looks and feels like a world apart.