The province of Rif Dimashq [the “countryside” of Damascus] is the vast area that embraces the Syrian capital. It encompasses the regions of Al-Sabboura, Zabadani, Bloudan and Madaya to the west, Kiswe to the south and Douma, Harasta, Rankous, Qalamoun and Daraya to the north. It also includes the areas of Al-Madimiyah and Qatana.
The cities and towns of Rif Dimashq spread out along the roads that link Damascus to Homs, Deraa, the Golan Heights and Lebanon. Each of these towns and cities has their own stories within the context of the crisis that is plaguing Syria.
When you hear stories from Rif Dimashq, you feel compelled to visit at least two of its regions. Each town has its own unique attraction. [As a journalist], in Douma, both the sound of the gunfire and the stories of extremism are alluring. A lack of communications has cut the town off from the rest of the country, but news was leaked regarding a raging conflict between the regular army and the armed insurgents. The Free Syrian Army recently made a tactical withdrawal. In other words, we are on the verge of "Baba Amr 2."
By car, Damascus to Douma is less than 15 minutes away. However, finding a driver willing to take you there can be pretty tough, regardless of the price one is willing to pay.
On the way there, one man from Harasta tells us that the fire fights have just recently calmed down in Douma, in part due to the deployment of international observers.
This reassuring bit of news was welcomed before we entered alone into an area known for its extremism. Here, black banners [of the Islamic Caliphate] were once raised instead of the "independence" flags of the opposition. More importantly, Douma is a stronghold for armed insurgents. Residents of Douma are divided between those who embrace these dissidents and those who are simply sick of them.
A security officer interrupts our trip, asking us for our ID cards. He asks why we are visiting and inspects the car before allowing us to enter.
After a short while, our driver apologizes: he is unable to continue the trip. All alone, we walked into a city unknown to us until we were met by our bodyguard on Al-Jala Street. This was an opportunity for us to discover the true image of Douma, where residents are ready to spontaneously tell people about what has happened and what is currently happening around them.
Douma From the Inside
The residents of the region take pride in their land, and indulge in detailed descriptions of their city when asked about it. Douma is at the heart of the countryside, and a large proportion of people here are active in trade and agriculture.
For 20 years, Douma was mostly devoid of any foreigners, with the exception of some Palestinian families that became virtually embedded into the general fabric of the city.
Its large marketplace is considered a vibrant and economic center that is essential to the surrounding areas. A great number of major government institutions can also be found in Douma. These institutions draw many people, including shoppers, on a daily basis. This then leads to healthy financial benefits for the city.
The city's middle-class residents are traders known for their kindness, generosity, chivalry and conservatism.
Their relationships with one another grew closer with the outbreak of the protests. In Douma, families are interconnected and mutually supportive, and no one ever sleeps hungry.
As we took cover from a sniper, one activist and college student told us of the city's history. He said Douma defied the rule of the Baath Party during the separation [from the United Arab Republic with Egypt]. After Syria seceded from the UAR, Douma remained rebellious for long periods of time, resisting the new regime’s authority.
Very few of the city’s residents joined government services or the Baath Party. Prior to the protests, parties and political organizations spread throughout Douma. In fact, its residents were deeply involved in political life prior to 1990 within some communist and nationalist parties. They were especially involved in the Socialist Union, which was the most popular among the city’s residents in the seventies and eighties. The Muslim Brotherhood was also popular in the eighties, although its members were subject to the same persecution and suppression endured by the organization in Hama and other cities.
After activists from all of the city’s movements were arrested, repressed and terrorized, Douma began to isolate itself politically.
Over the last two decades, a few Islamist Wahhabi and Salafist movements have emerged in the city, but only to a limited extent due to the tight grip of security forces.
Although Douma appears to be characterized by conservatism, it still remains one of Syria’s religiously moderate cities. Its people do not pay much attention to religious extremist orientations or armed Jihadist movements, and no incidents or arrests on this basis were reported prior to the "revolution.”
Thanks to one “popular movement” activist, we were able to gain real insight into the mindset of the people of Rif Dimashq. According to her, the people of Douma did not appreciate the presence of international observers in their village.Their presence was disastrous and did not halt the bloodshed or the security forces’ incursions. There were many solutions to topple the regime in Syria, had the international community provided genuine effort in ending the bloodshed, she said.
She continued to say that the Syrian regime is solely responsible for the deaths of all victims, from all parties, yet the international community continues to shield the Syrian government. “We, as activists, are well aware that no party is working to our advantage. In Syria, Israel and the West are only looking after their own interests,” said the activist.
She added that in Douma, most people are against sectarian conflict. There are some who are merely looking after their own interests, and therefore stick to the regime. Others keep silent as they are intimidated by all the bloodshed they are witnessing. However, they do not support any party. There is also a third category that is affected by sectarian propaganda. The regime has been trying to exploit these people by inciting them ever since the revolution erupted. They are merely afraid of the unknown, but are not actual supporters of the regime, according to the activist.
Today, Douma is grappling with sectarian strife and religious divides. This is especially true after leaked videos showed protesters waving black flags that resembled those of al-Qaeda militants. However, the activist denied the presence of al-Qaeda in Douma: “From day one, we, my fellow activists and I, took to the streets. We rallied with other activists and shouted slogans against the regime. We started this revolution because we dream of a free country for all parties — a country where the law is above all. Undoubtedly, there is no sectarian diversity in Douma. There are rather simply different political tendencies.”
She continued: “There are Islamist movements and national movements, but the majority of Douma’s population, including myself, is not represented by any political movement. We are represented by movement of change and revolution. And if there were few individuals waving the black flag, this does not mean they represent all of us. They are merely expressing their own allegiance. However, the majority of the people wish to live in freedom and not under the rule of any tyrannical regime, even if it has a different name. We are Muslims and we pride ourselves on expressing our religious convictions in refined and civilized ways that reflect our ethics. We seek a state governed by civil law, where no sect or religion is prejudiced and where everyone is respected as Syrian nationals. This is our true nature as Syrian people.”