The woman was weeping and hugging her three young children in her dust- coloured clothes, her face to the sky, as she called out for divine justice: "May Allah not grant you success, O Bashar and may He not show you any kindness much like when you forced us to leave our homes, and made our children fatherless" she cried. She was making her way through the middle of the main thoroughfare in Hayy Al-Tadamon - a densely populated working class district near the centre of Damascus whose name literally translates as 'the neighbourhood of solidarity' – oblivious of the odd looks she was getting.
Civilians flee Barzeh area in Damascus as violence escalates
Her imprecations were extraordinary given the tight security grip imposed by the Syrian regime against its people. Though curses against Bashar have become commonplace in internet forums and on demonstrations, to see someone insult the person of the president in a crowded public place where the political allegiances of the bystanders are unknown, is rare.
Following the regime forces bombing the neighbourhood of Al-Wa'er in Homs, Umm Mohammed also fled the home where she had lived all her life to take refuge in her sister's house in the Damascan suburb of Douma. And when regime forces shelled it on June 28, she was once again forced to flee with her family to Al-Tadamon. Then at a quarter past five on Sunday afternoon, July 15, the regime began its offensive on al-Tadamon. Large numbers of shabīha and regime troops stormed the area to clear it of any opposition to the regime. The Free Syrian army headquartered in the heart of Al-Tadamon and adjoining neighbourhoods raised their banner, and so began ‘the battle for liberation’.
Meanwhile,Tawfiq a nine-year-old boy and his sister Farah, just six, were both displaced with their families from the village of Karm al-Zaytoun in the province of Homs following the massacre that took place there earlier this year on March 12. That massacre claimed the lives of 47 innocent civilians. Tawfiq had been struck by a sniper's bullet in his left thigh while he was playing with friends in front of his house. His friend had been shot dead, possibly by the same sniper's bullet, in the same incident. Whenever you ask Farah to draw something and colour it, she draws a small house with a tree near it. For some reason she colours the tree, while the house is left unpainted. These details may not be very unusual, maybe I'm reading too much into it. What is certain is that a six year old child has been driven from the relative safety of her home.
I don’t know what subsequently became of the old woman and her children. Nor do I know what has happened to Tawfiq, Farah and their family. But these are not isolated cases. During the first two hours of the military onslaught on Al-Tadamon nearly 5,000 people - mostly women and children - were displaced, including hundreds of internally displaced people originally from other parts of Syria. As always, the generosity of ordinary Syrian people knows no bounds: in particular, there is kindness to be found in Mukhayim al-Yarmouk, an overcrowded urban refugee settlement, which lies adjacent to Al-Tadamon and has been home to Palestinian refugees displaced since 1948.
The Palestinian and Syrian residents of Mukhayim Yarmouk have opened the doors of their homes, UNRWA schools and mosques to receive the growing number of displaced people coming from neighbourhoods across the South of Damascus. By the second day of shelling, most of the remaining residents decided to flee Al-Tadamon. Aside from the constant shelling and the crackle of gunfire the neighbourhood has fallen silent now and the streets have become completely deserted save for the military checkpoints.
Despite the hospitality by the people of adjoining neighbourhoods, the stigma attached to being displaced remains strong. A popular Syrian saying warns us: “mīn tarak daro, al mi'daro" which means “the one who leaves his home lessens his value”. One of the very few who chose not to leave Al-Tadamon was Yamen. He and his wife had fled from the Damascus suburb of Daarya two months previously. He now refuses to leave the house he found as a refuge; with so much internal displacement it has become difficult to find housing with affordable rents. When I asked him why he hadn't left the neighbourhood he replied: "I prefer to sit scared stiff in my own house rather than sit safely but humiliated in an UNRWA school.”
Repeated experiences of military operations at the hands of regime forces in many parts of Syria, has left many scathing about the regime’s claim to protect its own citizenry. It has became well-known that being a child, a woman, an old man, a civilian, a neutral or even someone loyal to the regime does not protect you from death by a sniper's bullet, a mortar shell or even tank fire. The number of civilians killed since the beginning of the revolution during military operations is many times more than double the number of militants. This is because the army follows what is tantamount to a scorched-earth policy: a policy aimed at quelling any kind of opposition in the Syrian street through using intimidation and the systematic mass slaughter of its own population. In the face of such overwhelming brutality and however life-threatening it is, more and more are forced to flee their homes.
The issue of internally displaced people has become one of the most serious challenges facing Syrian society. Statistics show the number to be more than 1.5 million people displaced inside Syria itself, mostly from the city of Homs, which increasingly resembles a war-zone with entire neighbourhoods completely flattened to the ground. Despite attempts by activists and charities to provide much needed food and shelter to the newly displaced, the numbers far exceed the most pessimistic of estimates. This is truer now than ever before with the concentrated movement of displaced people in the city of Damascus, which until the morning of July 15 was considered the safest place in Syria.
"At this moment while you are reading this article, some families are fleeing their houses, and some of them have been spending days homeless. Some children are losing their joyful spirit, and also some freedom fighters are giving their lives for their country." These were Syria's headlines.
The author sends a thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for translating this article