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In Syria town, protesters and army play cat and mouse

It’s Friday, and this suburb just seven miles from the capital and dangerously close to the epicenter of the Syrian regime’s control is in lockdown.

Army trucks carrying extra troops trundle through the nearly deserted streets around the central mosque. The hunched green outlines of soldiers can be made out on the tops of tall buildings, following the movement below with the tracer points on their sniper rifles.

Down the street, locals position their defenses: flaming barricades made of the week’s trash, rocks and garbage cans.

As midday prayers end, the sounds echoing from the mosque minarets fade and the chants of bubbling defiance aimed at Syria’s president begin once more in the alleyways of this caldron of antigovernment resistance outside Damascus. “God is our only leader! Death to Bashar Assad!”

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Small groups of residents make their way to the edge of Duma’s main avenue: the “kill zone,” well within range of the rooftop snipers.

Men huddle at the doorway of the central mosque, planning their exit, fearful of being shot at as they leave. The chants and encouraging calls of the protesters grow louder until, mustering courage, the men leap out in groups, hurling themselves across the avenue and into the relative safety of the alley opposite to join the protesting crowd.

The armed forces seem on edge; the first protesting voices, just 10 or so people, are enough to prompt gunfire. Ten yards from the mosque, a middle-aged man steps out of his shop onto the street. A bullet hisses by, just above his head, smacking into the wall of the store. He jumps back inside.

Their adrenaline high, shouting “Freedom!” at the top of their lungs, people swell the crowds in the alleys. Soon each tributary to the central avenue has groups of 100 men or more, shouting. Some keep their identities hidden with balaclavas or by painting their faces with the colors and pattern of the pre-regime Syrian flag.

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Old men gather with the young, black-and-white hand-stitched kaffiyehs draped on their heads. Boys no older than 10 scamper among the men.

A man on an old red motorbike speeds around the back streets and alleys, ferrying protesters between demonstrations and warning locals of the army’s movements. Smoke and sound grenades rain down as soldiers try to hit the side streets.

“There are dogs in that street,” locals warn one another, referring to the military. Close to the main mosque, the crackle of gunfire can be heard.

“Five people were killed in these protests last week,” mutters Sami, an activist who is escorting an unsanctioned foreign reporter to the scene. He does not want his full name published to avoid retribution.

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Women do not participate in Friday protests, Sami says, because of the danger. The painted metal doors of homes are left ajar, an invitation of shelter to the demonstrators should the situation turn bad.

Less than two feet away, a soldier’s gun makes a dull clunk against his side as he turns to face Sami. He steps forward as if to stop him, then thinks better of it and lets him continue down the road.

“You see, they are everywhere. On every corner, on every street, watching us,” the activist says. “What kind of freedom is this?

“This is not Kandahar or Baghdad — this is my Duma!” he adds, still sounding incredulous at the scenes unfolding in his small hometown.

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Lampposts, mosques and public buildings are etched with colorful messages of dissent: “Down with the dictator” and “We live for freedom.” They are interspersed with black smudges and blocks of thick black paint — marks of the security forces’ constant battle to block the blasphemy against the regime.

Farther away, where the town peters out into mud huts and countryside, five men peer from an olive grove. Armed with rusty Kalashnikovs, they are a deployment from the fledgling Free Syrian Army, military defectors who support the opposition.

“We are watching, waiting in case the protesters need us to intervene,” says one man, a red kaffiyeh hiding his identity. “We are here to protect them. If the army attacks too strongly, we will fight back.”

They won’t be needed this week. For three hours, the protesters continue to play cat and mouse with the army under a cold gray winter sky. As one demonstration melts away, another appears in a different street, pockets of resistance scattered across the town.

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Two young men, 18-year-old twins, arrive in an empty alley where two children are kicking a ball. They have just been released from two months’ detention at an intelligence facility in downtown Damascus.

They say they were arrested at their farmhouse in the Damascus countryside on a sunny October day. Accused of owning large speakers that might be used in antigovernment demonstrations, they say they were repeatedly tortured for information about activists.

Now they stand thin, pallid-skinned, with hair just beginning to grow back on their shaven heads. But the torture, they say, only reinforced their desire to oust the government. Less than an hour after their release, the brothers say, they put on their jackets and left home in search of the next protest.

The correspondent, who was not accredited to report in Syria, is unidentified to protect sources in the country.


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