The Syrian town of Douma, just outside Damascus, has been the scene recently of some of the most intense clashes between government forces and opposition fighters.
The army is now back in control of large parts of Douma. But that doesn’t mean the fighting or the dying is over.
At first glance Douma looks like a bustling town on a busy Saturday. The shops are open for business and children are playing in the street. But in this town of half a million people, this is only a veneer. Coming around the corner, six truckloads of government soldiers wheel into view. And the people melt back into their homes and shops, into the shadows.
On the outskirts of Douma, members of the Free Syrian Army have gathered on the grounds of what used to be a graceful villa before it was hit by mortars.The rebel soldiers communicate on walkie-talkies as they pace over shattered glass, clutching rifles in one hand, cigarettes in the other.
A junior recruit – 21-years-old – wears battle fatigues and an ammunition belt around his wait. He said he defected because he couldn’t bear the way the army was treating its own people.
“When I was on duty at army checkpoints,” he said, “any civilian approaching would be dragged out of his car and put in prison for days.”
For him, the arrival of the UN monitors has provided no relief.
“Because they’ll enter a home and talk to someone, then they’ll go to the government’s security agents and tell them what we said,” he explained.
He and other rebel soldiers believe the UN observers are nothing more than spies. The ragtag group move around Douma in packs, in rattling cars with wobbly wheels and missing fenders. For him, he said, there is no turning back.
“Peaceful demonstrations are well and good. But we were forced into becoming violent. When the military kills my brother or my cousin, I will go out to defend him,” the soldier said.
And he showed what the battles have cost him. The top of one of his fingers is gone. Then he pulls up his shirt, to reveal a vivid red scar from surgery after he was shot in the stomach.
He may very well have been treated, at least initially, by a woman who stood before me, pulling medical supplies out of a backpack. All the supplies were smuggled in past army checkpoints.
She barely qualifies as a nurse, having only finished the most basic training.But she now has battlefield experience and lists off the tools of her trade; sterilized bandages, antibiotics, syringes, lotions for treating burns.
“We even hide them inside the folds of our clothes,” she said. “I was stopped at the beginning of the revolution and apprehended for three hours because of these.”
She carries them to makeshift clinics inside people’s homes or she goes straight to the homes of the wounded.
“If we’re able to treat them, we do treat them. If we can’t we do our best to get them to the hospital. It is suffering in every sense of the word. A struggle to transport patients, a struggle to work in a makeshift clinic that can be raided at any given moment. At any time they could capture the wounded,” the woman said.
It’s not just soldiers. Protesters and other opposition supporters have also been hurt at demonstrations.Even though the army has control of most of Douma, there are still skirmishes and violence every week, mainly after Friday prayers.
A doctor welcomed me into his examining room. He has no regular patients now, he said, because no one can afford to come. Instead, he has a new kind of practice courtesy of the uprising.
“The injuries we are seeing are mixed. Bullet wounds to the stomach, the head, the limbs. We’ve had to carry out amputations several times,” the doctor said. “The worst cases are those who become paralyzed due to bullet wounds.”
He does most of his work at the hospital, even when the government security forces enter the wards to look for rebels. But he said he also heads out into the neighborhoods when he’s needed, despite the risks.
“The condition of the patients in the makeshift clinics is extremely bad. As doctors we aren’t allowed to carry any medicine or even basic first aid supplies. Something as simple as a bandage? I’m not allowed to have it with me. If I’m found with it I risk imprisonment,” he said.
In fact, he said he’s been jailed three times since the uprising began along with several other doctors in Douma. I asked him whether government forces are trying to stop him from helping those they consider they enemy.
“For sure,” he said. “Because they say to me that I am treating terrorist gangs. All the time they’re accusing me of treating terrorist gangs! What we really have is a nation that wants freedom.”
In the town, the walls of buildings damaged by mortar fire are filled with anti-regime graffiti. The Free Syrian army roam the streets ready for more battles. A few days ago, UN monitors spotted government army tanks in violation of the terms of the ceasefire.
All that is visible on Douma’s streets suggest there is much tension and yet more trouble in store.