Damascus residents staying home, fearful of police

by Reuters
Friday, 22 July 2011 13:53 GMT

* Damascus residents fear chaos

* Ramped up security measures in the capital

* Activists find new ways to rebel

By Oliver Holmes

BEIRUT, July 22 (Reuters) - Damascus residents troubled by intensified crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in the Syrian capital are now staying at home, hoarding money and bracing for violence.

"Nobody is shopping anymore or going to restaurants. Even the clubs are empty," said a resident of the once-lively Old City, who gave her name as Nour.

Residents told Reuters by telephone they were worried that the capital could slide into disorder, as in the central cities of Homs and Hama where protests against President Bashar al-Assad's autocratic rule have been met with military crackdowns.

A Syrian journalist said the economy was stagnating, adding: "The price of vegetables, tea, sugar and cooking oil is rising."

The Hamidiyeh Souk, usually bustling with Syrians buying silks and tourists eating ice cream topped with pine nuts, is quiet. "We've cut our prices," said Old City shopkeeper Yasser, 32. "But nobody is shopping and the tourists have all left."

Until last Friday, Damascus had seen few of the anti-Assad demonstrations that have swept Syria since March, with only a few protests that were quickly dispersed by security forces.


But a week ago, thousands of Damascenes frustrated by the slow pace of reforms promised by Assad took to the streets. Security forces responded harshly, killing at least 23 people.

That shifted the mood in the capital, where daily life had gone on as if untouched by four months of upheaval elsewhere.

Young Syrians who once discussed music and fashion in upscale cafes are now focused on the political crisis.

"The talk in Damascus now is all about protests, deaths, arrests and security services in search of citizens," Nour said.

Residents say plain-clothes police prowl cafes, shops and internet cafes. A privately owned mobile network has even started calling people to try and track down dissidents.

"An employee from my service provider called to ask if I knew the address (of an activist)," Nour said, adding that some of her friends had received similar calls.

Shop owners have plastered their walls with Assad posters and tune their television sets to the official media to show support for the 45-year-old leader -- or to keep police away.

One merchant said police had raided his shop and beaten an employee who was watching Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based channel that the government accuses of incitement and "spreading lies."

On al-Qamariah, a central cobbled-stoned street, Assad supporters have laid a poster with the Al Jazeera emblem on the ground for strolling Syrians to trample on.

In largely empty nightclubs, managers play songs praising Assad to try to convince police of their loyalty, real or not.


Some residents register subtle protests without taking to the streets or incurring retribution from the security forces.

"I never play songs that support Assad and I reject offers from Syrian intelligence to report on dissenting views I hear from customers," said Mahmoud, a 38-year-old taxi driver. "I never deliver injured protesters to the security forces."

Some Damascus taxi drivers are believed to be government informers and some have taken dissidents to the police, instead of their intended destinations.

Ahmed, a university graduate, furtively distributes leaflets to activists that list Syrian firms working with the government. "I don't buy anything on the list," he said.

Others, like 30-year-old Rana, have quit jobs in government-affiliated companies.

A resident of an affluent area said she had joined secret first aid classes "for when it really gets bad in Damascus". (Editing by Mariam Karouny and Alistair Lyon)

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