Hala Jaber in Ma’arrat Al-Nu’man, Syria Published: 26 June 2011
They came in their thousands to march for freedom in Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, a shabby town surrounded by pristine fields of camomile and pistachio in the restive northwest of Syria.
The demonstration followed a routine familiar to everyone who had taken part each Friday for the past 11 weeks, yet to attend on this occasion required extraordinary courage.
The previous week four protesters had been shot dead for trying to block the main road between Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, the country’s largest city. The week before that, four others were killed.
So enraged were the townspeople at the blood spilt by the mukhabarat, or secret police, that intermediaries had struck a deal between the two sides. Four hundred members of the security forces had been withdrawn from Ma’arrat in return for the promise of an orderly protest. The remainder, 49 armed police and 40 reserves, were confined to a barracks near the centre of town. By the time 5,000 unarmed marchers reached the main square, however, they had been joined by men with pistols.
At first the tribal elders leading the march thought these men had simply come prepared to defend themselves if shooting broke out. But when they saw more weapons — rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers held by men with heavy beards in cars and pick-ups with no registration plates — they knew trouble lay ahead.
Hala Jaber in Damascus Published: 26 June 2011