Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Slum-Dwellers Challenge Official Account of Riots


It all began when I received a telephone call from a friend one day in June 2009. Without any preamble, he shouted over the phone that people were being shot and buildings were on fire. “It is like hell here,” I remember him saying.

My friend was talking about the violent clashes that had erupted between residents and the police in Ruhaiba, a town near Damascus, as local government officials went ahead with the demolition of a patch of unlicensed buildings one morning without prior notice.

Two people were killed in the incident - although this was not reported in the official media - and several others were injured. Dozens were arrested after furious rioters torched government buildings. Hundreds of policemen were eventually deployed to restore calm.
In the next few days, I scanned the media coverage of the incident. I was disappointed to see that most of the articles on the topic focused on describing the damage caused by the residents without any serious attempt to understand their motives or the reasons behind the eruption of popular rage. There weren’t even any substantial testimonies from victims or eyewitnesses.
So I decided to go to that town located 50 kilometres north-east of the capital to try and find out for myself what had happened.
My main goal was to dig deeper and try to understand the motives behind the actions of the inhabitants of Ruhaiba, who normally lead a quiet life.
It was not the first time that the authorities had demolished homes in poor neighbourhoods, sometimes under the pretext of modernisation and at other times because they had been built illegally.
Every time, there was resistance from the people and violence occurred. I felt I should shed light on this issue.
I was interested in understanding how people could suddenly emerge from a state of lethargy to one of audacity and face gunfire and riot policemen without fear.
The trip by bus from Damascus took around an hour. On the way, I was worried that I would be forced to interview residents in the presence of a local official, which is what journalists are usually faced with here.
But what really scared me was that I might be stopped by secret agents or informants I suspected would be roaming around in the neighbourhood. I could be arrested because I did not have a press card nor was I working for a local media outlet.
When I arrived, I started to ask around about the incident. But most people were afraid to talk. They were recounting the incident with strange neutrality, as if it happened somewhere else and did not concern them.
Even the families of the victims were hiding their grief behind frozen faces and hollow words.
Most of them replied with the same phrases: that they trusted the state, loved the president, and were confident that the situation was going to be better soon. They were scared that if they criticised the government, they risked interrogation.
It took some time and patience on my part before they opened up. The younger people showed much more enthusiasm and spoke out more frankly.
I had to interview dozens of witnesses and victims before I was eventually able to reconstruct the sequence of events on the day of the riots.
The most difficult moment of my reporting was talking to the families of the two people who died. I felt helpless and unable to console them.
When I finished my interviews, I realised that the real problem centred on poverty and corruption. The inhabitants of this neighbourhood were getting poorer as unemployment and inflation continued to rise. Many said that they resorted to the construction of makeshift, unlicensed houses because they didn’t have enough money to build legal homes. They said they had to bribe local officials who, for a while, turned a blind eye to this growing phenomenon.
I felt it was my duty to tell their stories, although I was not under any illusion that articles could compel the government to feel accountable and deal with the roots of the problems in this neighbourhood or elsewhere.  
When I sent my article to my editor, he asked me to get an official response to the residents’ accounts. It is dangerous for me to contact officials about a sensitive topic like this one. So my editor finally included an official response from a spokesman from the Syrian embassy in London who said, “No person in Syria is thrown out of his home or will [be thrown out,] without [the authorities] finding him another home [first].”
I knew that he was not telling the truth.
It is difficult to be objective and neutral when one believes that the truth lies on the side of the oppressed people.

Link to original article by an IWPR-trained reporter. Published in SYR No. 62, 12 Jun 09.

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