A Syria Witness from Izraa’ in a southern province writes about what she calls a “standing joke among Syrians” these days that the government changes the names of towns when international observers want to investigate reports of government violence. The author identifies herself as Rund al-Huriya, or Laurel of Freedom. Her contacts told al-Huriya they thought the visitors were U.N. observers because the letters “U.N.” were on the doors of the vehicle.
Please keep in mind that the first monitors sent by the U.N. did not arrive until April 16. However, other U.N. humanitarian agencies such as the World Food Program (WFP) and UNICEF have been operating in the country for many years and have stepped up funding during this crisis. It is possible the vehicle referred to in this report belonged to a U.N. agency but it is unlikely the vehicle was part of the now active U.N. observer team patrolling the country.
By Rund al-Huriya in Izraa’, April 20, 2012
“When observers come to Syria and want to visit specific towns and villages where they want to investigate reports of government violence, the regime could not take them to those rebellious areas. Instead, the government changes the signs at the entrances of the ‘relatively calm’ towns to become the towns observers want to visit.
“Many Syrians have started joking about this when, for example, they go to a bus station and want to go to a specific town. They discuss whether they should take the bus whose sign says the name of that real town or the one whose sign says it is one of the government’s newly-named towns.
“Anyone who knows Daraa province knows that many of its towns and villages are divided into two parts: al-Balad, which is known as the old town, and al-Mahata, the part of town that surrounds a train station that was built on the Hejaz Railway during the days of the Ottoman Empire.
“Many friends and neighbors told me that on Monday, March 26, some strangers in a U.N. vehicle wanted to visit the town of Busr al-Harir, which was being shelled then and continues to be hit by rockets as I write to you.
“To convince them that peace has been restored in Busr al-Harir, it was more than impossible for the Syrian security forces to take them there.
“Therefore, Muhammad al-Shmali , the head of the government’s security branch here, played the regime’s stupid game: change the names of towns. Instead of escorting the visitors to Busr al-Harir, he took them to a nearby town where I live called Izraa’ and he told them that this town was Izraa’, where there was no shelling.
“’Now, I will take you to Busr al-Harir,’ he said. So, he drove them around the town of Izraa’ and said, ‘Here is Busr al-Harir.’
When al-Shmali drove the visitors around the town, I mean the word ‘around’ as an adverb. He simply took them from Izraa’ al-Mahata to Izraa’ al-Balad. It’s like they came from the west entrance of Izraa’, went out of the town, drove around Izraa’ and entered another part of the same town from the north.
“The observers walked around the town and interviewed people. The regime play was going just fine until the observers met Osama, a 12-year-old boy from the neighborhood.
“One observer asked Osama, ‘How are things going on here?’
“Osama excitedly replied, ‘The shabiha are everywhere…
“’We want our arrested brothers back… There is no electric power, no phone connection…’
“The observer tried to calm Osama and looked around him. ‘Okay, child. It is said that there is shelling in Busr al-Harir, but we don’t see any signs of shelling.’
“Osama was astonished.
“’Where do you think you are?’ the boy asked. ‘If you thought that you are in Busr al-Harir, you are very much mistaken. This is the town of Izraa’ which has sacrificed 14 martyrs!’
“Growing angry, Osama pointed at the head of security branch.
“’This is Muhammad al-Shmali,’ the boy shouted.
“’He and his shabiha always chase us in our peaceful demonstrations. They arrest us and embarrass us before our families. They storm into houses where our mothers and sisters are, they steal, and they sabotage…’
“Despite the months of the crackdown and the violence the regime is practicing, there are still people like Osama who are willing to say the truth no matter what. I was not there when Osama spoke to the observers, but I have talked to many friends and neighbors who were there and I’ve tried to repeat word for word what he said.
“Thank God, Osama was not arrested, but he was taken to the security branch with his father two times for a few hours. Al-Shmali could not do anything to Osama because the observers had discovered they had been cheated.
“But the observers never had a chance to see Busr al-Harir, which is another five kilometers down highway 109 to the east of my town.”
The Syrian government has placed severe restrictions on international reporters entering the country. We invite Syrians on either side of the conflict to tell the world how they cope with street violence, human tragedies, political chaos and economic loss in their daily lives. In some cases, material has been edited for clarity, but does not alter the content. Syria Witness reports cannot be independently verified and to assure their personal safety, many Witnesses do not use their real names. Find more on-the-street reporting at Syria Witness.
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David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.