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Not Dark Yet In Daraa, Heart Of The Syrian Uprising

Not Dark Yet In Daraa, Heart Of The Syrian Uprising

In the town where Syria's popular revolt began a week ago, and where dozens or more were reportedly shot dead by government troops, there is no sign protesters are ready to surrender.

Protesters disperse after police open fire in Daraa (Youtube)

DARAA - The capital, Damascus, may be staunchly behind Syrian President Bashar Assad, as his supporters show by staging demonstrations and driving their flag-draped cars every night. But here in Daraa, the small town where it all began, challenging the established power is no longer taboo, though as dangerous as ever.

"Let everybody know in Italy, in the rest of the world: Tell them that we only want freedom," says 32-year-old Ziad, sipping tea in his family's restaurant in downtown Daraa. "We've been silent for 41 years."

The capital of the rural Hawran region, Daraa lies just 10 miles from the Jordanian border and about a 30-minute drive from the Golan Heights. Its rolling landscape is dotted with flocks of sheep, olive trees and peasants laboring away, red keffiyehs on their heads to protect them from the sun.

"I've spent all my life under Assad," says Abdullah, 54, a father of eight and owner of a small bazaar along the shara Hanunu, the road the rebels want to rename shara Mhamoud Jawabra in memory of the first protester killed by police.

"Like everyone else, I've waited for something to change, but time has just flown away," he says. "Then with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, our kids mustered up the courage and then it got to us old people, too."

"Here in Daraa 250 people have been killed in a week," he adds, though precise death counts have not been confirmed. "But we are past our fear now -- and there's no going back."

The atmosphere in Daraa is thick with tension. The Internet and cell phones do not work, reporters have been moved away and cameras forbidden, but as one gets into town using the local bus there are no checkpoints. Yet soldiers are present, spotted behind the windows of the SUVs, sporting pro-Assad stickers, that they drive around the dusty and deserted boulevards at the town's entrance.

"They don't really hang out in the center of town, they come and go. This morning they fired shots again," says Samar, as he pulled down the shutters of his bakery and quickly collected the bread left on the outside counter. "The revolution is coming."

Within a minute, the road fills up with protesters – quickly swelling from dozens to some 500 -- shouting "Hurryia!" ("Freedom!"). There are young men and not-so young men, adolescents and only two young women, unlike in Tunis or Cairo where female protesters were common. Nobody has weapons and only a few speak a bit of English. They are proud of it, because they say it disproves the government's claim of a foreign influence over their protest.

"When we attacked the palace of justice, it was because we got shot at. They started shooting at us right away, since the first demonstration," said Ahmad, a taxi driver. Nearby, an Assad poster saying "I believe in Syria" has been ripped, a mild first gesture prior to the toppling of the statue featuring his father, the late president Hafez al Assad.

Economic demands

This is where Syria's rage exploded, amid these Soviet-like buildings with none of the refined elegance of Damascus' architecture. Here, veiled women are busy hanging out clothes for drying, including their husbands' jallabias, the traditional long tunics that you rarely see men wear in the capital.

People here had been harboring discontent for a long time, for economic reasons as well: rising fuel prices, lack of job prospects, and immigration from eastern neighbors fleeing drought to come to a region that counts 770,000 people yet few resources.

But they needed a symbol. In Tunisia it was the suicide of fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi; in Egypt the fatal police shooting of blogger Khaled Said; in Libya, the incarceration of the Benghazi lawyer defending families of the victims of the Abu Salim prison. In Daraa, it was the arrest of 20 kids for having scrawled on walls anti-regime, pro-Arab protest graffiti.

"How can you arrest kids who write on the wall? Apparently they pulled their nails out," said a construction worker, Mohammed, as a small crowd gathered to attend a funeral in the Omari mosque, which police forces raided on Wednesday, killing at least six people. The wooden casket is placed on a rickety vehicle, as friends bid farewell to the "martyr."

The protest also has a religious component, explains Alsham, an architect, speaking from the coffee bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. "There is a strong Sunni presence around Daraa, which also borders with a highly-Islamized Jordanian region," he says. "Even if I don't agree with the government's violence, and I'm disappointed that the president's promises of reform were never fulfilled, I am afraid of a future of chaos and sectarianism."

But the protest is spreading, with clashes in Homs, Sanamein, Daeel, Duma, Tafas, Hama -- where in 1982 an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood was suppressed with bloodshed -- and even in Latakia, the main port in northern Syria and an Alawite area where Assad's family comes from.

Still, the south proudly feels like a pioneer in the Syrian uprising. "We started it," said Ziad, the man in the restaurant. In Daraa, the soft colors of the sunset are beginning to appear. The touch-and-go demonstrations, the closed shutters, the constant peering around to spot any uniforms behind the passing windows of the unusually well-polished cars: it all gives the beautiful Middle East light a bleak and ominous hue.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Russian Orthodox Church Has A Kremlin Spy Network — And Now It's Spreading Abroad

The Russian Orthodox Church has long supported Russia’s ongoing war effort in Ukraine. Now, clergy members in other countries are suspected of collaborating with and recruiting for Russian security forces.

Photo of Russian soldiers during mass at an Orthodox church in Moscow.

Russian soldiers during mass at an Orthodox church in Moscow.

Wiktoria Bielaszyn

WARSAW — Several countries have accused members of the Russian Orthodox clergy of collaborating with Russian security services, pushing Kremlin policy inside the church and even recruiting spies from within.

On Sept. 21, Bulgaria deported Russian Archimandrite Vassian, guardian of the Orthodox parish in Sofia, along with two Belarusian priests. In a press release, the Bulgarian national security agency says that clergy were deported because they posed a threat to national security. "The measures were taken due to their actions against the security and interests of the Republic of Bulgaria," Bulgarian authorities wrote in a statement, according to Radio Svoboda.

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These reports were also confirmed by Russia's ambassador to Bulgaria, Eleonora Mitrofanova, who told Russian state news agency TASS that the priests must leave Bulgaria within 24 hours. “After being declared persona non grata, Wassian and the other two clerics were taken home under police supervision to pack up their belongings. Then they will be taken to the border with Serbia" she said.

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