MILITARY trucks stood parked at the end of the dark, empty street. The electricity was cut, phone signals out, apartment windows boarded up with whatever wood or metal residents could find to stop the bullets, activists explained.
A lone child’s voice rang out into the night shouting again and again: “Down with Bashar al-Assad.”
This is not Homs nor any of those Syrian towns that for months have been the centrepoints of rebellious unrest and violent crackdown. This is Douma, a town on the suburbs of the capital, the apparent heartland of support for Mr Assad and his regime.
Central Damascus continues in relative normality, with the bustle of daily life. But less than seven miles away lies a restive town in lockdown, that every Friday – when protests traditionally take place after prayers in the mosques – is gripped by military siege.
“Do you see the army?” muttered Ali, the activist beside me. Disguised in local woman’s dress, face covered by a black veil, I am steered by him through the dark. Suddenly I felt a draught, and heard the clunk of the gun thudding against a soldier’s side. Less than two feet away, the soldier turned as if to stop us, and then thought better of it.
At the bottom of the street locals had erected flaming barricades to stop the advance of military vehicles. Soldiers were positioned on top of a building, one eye closed, the other watching movement below through sniper rifle sights.
The central avenues stood empty, the scrawls on the walls, some scrubbed out, some written over, depicted the graffiti of war. No message of support for Syria’s president remained. Soldiers worked to scrub out the torrent of abuse against his regime. Locals flooded the side streets and mud paths that riddle the city, out of sniper range. Doors of homes were left ajar, an invitation to demonstrators if they needed to escape. Locals passed warnings to each other: “There are dogs in that street”.
The military was on edge – just ten or so people shouting slogans was enough to prompt gunfire. Down the street a few men looked on, peering from an olive grove. Armed with rusty Kalashnikovs, these were a deployment from the opposition’s fledgling Free Syrian Army.
“We are watching, waiting, in case the protesters need us to intervene,” said one man, a red scarf hiding his face. “We are here to protect them”.
No facet of the city is untouched by the war. Armed troops stood sentinel outside a central hospital. The hospital owner had allowed anti-regime protesters to be treated there, explained Ahmed, an activist who could not give his real name.
“They [soldiers] arrested him and put him in prison for 17 days,” said Ahmed. “They were accused of owning and hiding guns,” he added. “But I was there, this was not true. The soldiers smashed all the security cameras to hide the evidence of what happened next.”
They came late one night as the patients slept. “We grabbed the injured, we dragged them from the back door and down the side streets.
“We kept some in the homes of sympathisers, others, those that could move fled. Others hid inside cupboards in the hospital,” recalled Ahmed. “Otherwise we think they would be killed.”
Hundreds of people have been injured in continual protests that started ten months ago. Activists said that Friday protests in the first week of December saw more than 100 casualties. These are now tended by volunteers working in secret clinics inside sympathisers’ homes, with whatever medicine can be smuggled in. It is not enough.