Fearing bombardment, East Ghouta town demands armed groups leave

Residents of Misraba, in the rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, are demanding that all armed factions leave in a bid to make the town less of a target for airstrikes and bombardment.

One week ago, after an airstrike reportedly killed a dozen people in the town, the Misraba Local Council issued a statement demanding that all armed groups leave. “The residents of [Misraba] call for the exit of all armaments from the town …to avoid subjecting the town and its people to dangers, tragedy and damages that they cannot bear,” the statement read.

“Most people are very angry about the presence of security checkpoints and heavy weapons in the town,” a member of the town’s local council, which maintains civilian control of the city, tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier and Mahran Mohammed.

Rebel factions Jaish al-Islam and Failaq a-Rahman currently maintain checkpoints in and around Misraba, a town of 25,000 residents.

Both Jaish and Failaq pledged to leave Misraba this past May, designating it a “neutral area” as part of a deal to stop nearly two weeks of deadly infighting. It wasn’t until July 28 that Jaish al-Islam partially withdrew from Misraba, while Failaq remains in place.

If the armed groups do not leave, residents will “protest peacefully until we achieve our goals,” said the council member, who requested anonymity.

“We left Bashar al-Assad for freedom and dignity. It doesn’t make sense for another group to come along and revoke our freedom.”

 Last week’s statement by civilian authorities in Misraba. Photo courtesy of the Misraba Local Council.

Q: Why did you issue the statement asking the armed factions to leave the town?

Most people are very angry about the presence of security checkpoints and heavy weapons in the town.

This statement was issued with the goal of stopping all of the military activities that Jaish al-Islam and Failaq a-Rahman are carrying out inside Misraba. Because of the struggles, the area has turned into a military zone in every sense of the word. The streets are blocked and the town is surrounded by earthen berms and security checkpoints, some belonging to Jaish al-Islam and some to Failaq a-Rahman.

 

[Ed.: Longstanding tensions between Jaish al-Islam and Failaq a-Rahman—the two strongest factions in East Ghouta—exploded into nearly two weeks of infighting this past April. A mid-May deal between the groups stipulated that Misraba would become neutral territory and instructed all armed groups to withdraw.]

Residents are really angry about the security checkpoints and heavy weaponry, given that Misraba is a civilian town. It is also home to more than 9,000 families who have fled from other villages and cities in East Ghouta.

[Last Friday,] a delegation from the Council of the People of Misraba, which represents all sectors of society, visited us and suggested the need to remove rebel military installations from the town.

They said that Misraba is too small to have this many checkpoints. Also, the city can’t withstand the regime and Russian airstrikes. Recent airstrikes [in East Ghouta] killed a dozen people from Misraba. The town is already under pressure because of its large population. Two or three families live in one house.

The day before the delegation visited us, a group of women demonstrated, demanding that armed groups leave Misraba. Men didn’t join them because they were afraid of being arrested, beaten or shot at.

Q: How has the statement been received?

The statement has been well-received by the residents.

As a council we can’t ignore the opinion of the majority of people in Misraba. Residents demonstrated against the armed factions here and proposed the idea of a statement.

Q: In your statement, you also called on “opportunistic, biased reporters to stop their irresponsible actions.” Why was this sentence included?

We included that statement after one of the journalists [in Misraba] took a picture of a girl trapped underneath rubble. The journalist left the scene without helping her. People asked, “is this picture more valuable than her life? How much did he sell it for?”

We in the council have issued several statements requesting that journalists report through the council’s media office—media is a responsibility, and it should be published by an official body, and we have an official page. But the journalists refused, saying that they are independent.

When a bombing happens, a journalist comes and photographs it, writes his name and the name of the town and gives it to other stations in return for a little money. The picture helps the regime determine where the target is so they can bomb the site again.

Many people here are worried about cameras because they bring nothing except for more bombs.

The world knows about the violations and massacres that are occurring but they are spineless. There is no point to photography—it doesn’t bring us anything. Also many journalists aren’t professionals.

Q: You’re asking rebel factions to leave. Do you see the regime as a threat?

We aren’t asking the groups to leave Ghouta. We want them to leave Misraba. Our city is far from the front lines. As I told you before, we are the commercial market for all of Ghouta and we have a dense population of civilians.

[Ed.: Traders living in Misraba reportedly cut deals with traders in neighboring regime-held territory and are able to bring some goods into East Ghouta. The illicit trade, coupled with smuggling tunnels, is a lifeline for the regime-blockaded suburbs and makes Misraba an economic center.]

We want the armed groups to go to Jobar, for example, which is on the front lines. There are many cities and villages located near the front lines.

Q: If the factions don’t respond, what will you do?

We will protest peacefully until we achieve our goals, our safety, our dignity and our future. We left Bashar al-Assad for freedom and dignity. It doesn’t make sense for another group to come along and revoke our freedom.

We won’t allow injustice to continue, no matter who is behind it. 

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Mahran Mohammed

Mahran holds a degree in Arabic literature from Damascus university. Originally from Daraa province, he was involved in the earliest peaceful demonstrations of the Syrian revolt revolt. In 2013, Mahran was injured in a regime attack and moved to Jordan. Mahran previously volunteered with Save the Children.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.