Exclusive: Dark Journey To Deraa, Syria’s Martyr Town Under Siege

A French journalist defies a ban on foreign reporters in Syria, and reaches Deraa, where the popular uprising began in March. With the city since shut off from the outside world, this exclusive account shows Deraa's residents living under siege,

Image from Youtube video of a crackdown in Deraa.
Image from Youtube video of a crackdown in Deraa.
Christian Clanet

A journalist, Clanet managed to enter Syria on a tourist visa (foreign media are banned from the country). On May 25, he arrived in Deraa, the southwestern city that was the first to rise against Bashar Al-Assad's regime before authorities cracked down, reportedly killing scores of locals, and cutting it off from the outside world. Briefly detained twice, Clanet was finally ordered to leave the country on May 27.

DERAA - Al-Balad, a neighborhood in the city's historic district, has become the ghetto of death. Since the end of March, it's been on permanent lockdown, surrounded by the Syrian army. From rooftops and balconies, soldiers shoot those who try to get in or out of the neighborhood. Deraa is the hotbed of the Syrian uprising, and Al-Balad its core. It was in this poor neighborhood that the "Syrian spring" came to life on March 16. People rose out of indignation and anger after the military police tortured a dozen teenagers caught painting graffiti imitating the Egyptian revolution and reading: "The people want the regime to fall."

Al-Balad went up in flames and the rest of the city followed. In the following weeks, the uprising spread north to Latakia, Banias, Homs, Hama… and even to the suburbs of Damascus. To crack down on a revolt that was gaining ground, Bashar Al-Assad's regime wanted to show the country what would happen to those who would resist him. As a result, Al-Balad is suffering under a merciless siege.

Electricity, water and phone lines have been cut. Without access to supplies, milk and essential foods have run out. The 15,000 residents under lockdown are facing famine. Everyday, during the evening prayer, thousands of voices rise above the neighborhood for the rest of the city to hear: "Milk! Water!" they scream, their voices barely muted by bursts of gunfire.

Nearby villagers tried to break the siege on April 29, arriving at Deraa's gates with gallons of water and olive branches for the soldiers. According to Human Rights Watch, that day more than 200 people died. Residents of nearby neighborhoods are worried about their "besieged" neighbors and the imminent sanitary disaster. There is no hospital in Al-Balad, and pharmacy shelves are close to empty.

"I haven't seen my family in two months," says Ali, 19. "They're trapped in Al-Balad. I know my mother can no longer feed my two brothers and three sisters. I would like to help them, but I'll be killed if I get close." Hassan, a friend he grew up with in Al-Balad, was shot on May 18 as he was trying to bring supplies to his family.

Ali was wounded after being shot by a hidden sniper. "Bashar says Islamist mercenaries working for Saudi Arabia and the West want to take control of Syria," he says clenching his fists. "It's not true! These are not Islamists in the streets, it's us! We, the Syrians of Deraa!"

Deraa has been under siege since early April, surrounded by a belt of automatic weapons, surface-to-air missiles and tanks -- all with their barrels facing the city. Tanks have also taken over the streets. Soldiers patrol the smallest streets and stand in groups of three at crossroads. A curfew is in place from 7pm to 7am.

Al-Balad is just 15 minutes away from the vegetable market in downtown Deraa. Streets are blocked by sandbag bunkers, behind which heavily armed soldiers are posted. Others are posted on high balconies. People can still walk on the sidewalks facing the sandbag bunkers, but not on the streets reserved for official vehicles. Past that border, only silence.

Hussein, 20, was arrested by the military police and detained for a month in the basement of their headquarters. He says his interrogation could have been worse. "My 17-year-old brother was taken during the April 22 protest. I don't know if he's alive or dead." Hussein says the stadium and the city's schools have been turned into detention centers and most of Deraa's families have a member in jail, dead or unaccounted for. Hussein says four to five thousand residents are being held in the stadium.

Pointing the darkened windows of an abandoned house, Hussein says "there were two surface-to-air batteries here," on the day his brother disappeared. "We were at least 15,000 protesters. Mostly young men, but also parents with their children, and the soldiers started shooting." He describes shredded bodies on the asphalt and heavy gunfire. "There was blood everywhere. I hid under a porch and I could hear the wounded screaming." On the other side of the street, soldiers were hiding in a half-built building. "We couldn't help the wounded." Hussein says he counted some 40 people killed. "But I'll never give up. I'd rather die."

In Deraa, other witnesses talk about arbitrary arrests, dragnets, torture and executions. They say that in order to spread fear, mutilated bodies are given back to the families. To describe what happens to some men, a taxi driver mimes chopping off a penis, as a last humiliation before death. Several doctors are said to have been executed for helping protesters.

Listed as a "rebel," Ahmed, 29, is under surveillance, suspected by the regime of being one of the leaders of the uprising. "Syria could be freed from Bashar Al-Assad's dictatorship if only we could communicate better and get organized. In Syria, rebels are the majority," he says. "If the rebellion explodes at the same time all over the country, there won't be enough soldiers to hold all the cities. The army is weakening."

Ahmed says that in Deraa, eight soldiers were executed in front of their brothers in arms because they refused to open fire on the crowd. Anger is gaining ground inside the army. "Officers are wearing bulletproof vests to protect themselves from those who have been drafted," he adds. "We can't beat tanks and heavy weapons, but we can try and spread them thin across the country."

As night falls on Deraa, voices rise from Al-Balad, immediately covered by the sound of gunshots. "Allah Akbar!" Al-Balad's residents are telling the rest of Deraa that they're still alive.

Read the original article in French

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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