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Life in limbo for the displaced of Damascus

Smoke rises from buildings after what activists say was an air strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Homs September
Smoke rises from buildings after what activists say was an air strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Homs September

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Last winter Abu Bassim fled with his wife and four children from heavy fighting in the southeastern suburbs of Damascus to seek refuge in his sister's house on the other side of the capital.

Seven months later the Sunni Muslim family is living in hiding in the house in Lawan, a concrete sprawl on the city's southwestern edge, after authorities denied Abu Bassim a residency permit which would let him live in the neighborhood.

Their plight is common for Syrians who hail from areas outside government control - a fact which can be easily deduced from their ID cards - and who are often suspected by the government of being rebel sympathizers.

They are singled out at government checkpoints, questioned and sometimes, according to Abu Bassim's account of his own treatment, detained for months without charge and tortured.

They cannot afford rents in central Damascus, which remains the most secure district of the capital and surrounding province, so they seek refuge on the city's outskirts.

But increasingly they are also shut out of districts considered to be "at risk" by the government, including areas like Lawan which lies on the edge of orchards used sometimes as cover by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Many trees and cactus fruit plants were razed last year by authorities, but the restrictions remain in place.

Abu Bassim, who declined to give his full name because he feared retribution from authorities, said armed men at a government checkpoint down the street from his new home told him he needed a formal residency permit to live there.

"I was confused. I told them: 'What's a residency permit? And why do I need one if I'm a Syrian citizen living in my own country?'"

FROZEN OUT

Poorer neighborhoods like Lawan, on the fringes of rebel-held land, face the tightest restrictions.

But some upscale districts are also affected, like the government-controlled Mashroua Dummar which is close to Qassioun mountain overlooking north Damascus and next to a garrison town of senior military families mainly from Assad's Alawite minority sect.

A few months ago, perhaps to drive this point home, authorities detained several real estate brokers in the mixed, middle class community for two or three days.

When the agents were released, they spread the word that homeowners in Mashroua Dummar were not allowed to rent their properties to outsiders, effectively freezing out anyone fleeing from the fighting in the rebel-held areas.

There are no clear rules or public announcements about the restrictions, making it difficult to know how many people are affected or whether officials deliberately discriminate against any particular sect.

But Damascenes from rebel areas, who tend to be mainly Sunni Muslims, say they face the greatest difficulties and are frequently challenged at checkpoints.

That reflects broader sectarian tensions in Syria which the civil war has exacerbated - Alawites are an offshoot sect of Shi'ite Islam who mostly support Assad, while the opposition, which includes hardline fighters from abroad, is dominated by Sunni Muslims.

Displaced people from the rebel stronghold of Barzeh who have moved to other parts of Damascus, especially young men, say they avoid leaving their new homes for fear of running into a checkpoint which will cause them trouble.

They all say they expect to return home one day, even if for some that means only coming home to a pile of rubble, once the civil war which has killed 100,000 people and displaced millions within Syria is finally over.

ARRESTED FOR SELLING BREAD

For Abu Bassim, who says he is in his early 40s but whose face is wrinkled like an old man's, the residency hurdle was just the latest blow in a year of troubles.

He spent 4-1/2 months imprisoned in the basement of an intelligence agency after he was detained at a checkpoint and accused of aiding rebels by supplying them with bread.

The accusation is a common one, frequently made against people travelling with any kind of food if they are near rebel areas or have IDs which show they come from rebel strongholds.

Activists estimate that thousands of civilians languish in underground prisons throughout Damascus, being held indefinitely on such charges.

Abu Bassim said he had indeed filled up his small truck with freshly purchased bread, which he was planning to sell to a list of customers willing to pay a little extra to avoid having to stand in the long bread lines.

It was his way of earning a daily wage. Trained as a construction site supervisor, he had not worked for months due to the stalled economy.

But it turned out to be a dangerous way to make money. His hands still trembling - a result, he says, of his incarceration - he described the conditions in detention.

"There was horrible filth, urine and feces all over the concrete floor, which was cold and wet. Some people slept on it. Everyone seemed sick. And I have not fully regained my health since getting out," he said.

Rolling up his trousers he revealed blue and red dots under the skin of his lower legs. Asked to say what could have caused the discoloration, he shook his head, looked down at his legs and repeated with a soft voice: "disease by torture".

So when he was later stopped at a checkpoint and told to apply at the nearest intelligence branch for a residency permit, it took considerable courage for him to show up - and even more to protest when a colonel refused to process his application.

"I told him: 'But, what can I do? The checkpoint says I need a permit, and only you can issue it.' I told him that my brother and cousin were both martyred while serving in the Syrian Army in this war. I told him I've had to flee my home. Why won't anyone help me?" he said.

"I saw anger rise in his eyes, and he lunged at me and grabbed my throat... He then kicked me and took away my ID and told me to crouch down in the corner and wait."

Squatting in discomfort, but too afraid to move, Abu Bassim said he waited there for more than 1-1/2 hours.

"I was so upset. The devil would come to me in waves, tempting me to lunge at one of the guards and take away his gun and shoot them all," he said. "But I kept my patience, until the colonel returned my ID and then I ran home."

Today, like every day since then, he wakes early to peek down the street, hoping that the checkpoint will not be there so he can venture out to earn money doing odd jobs. But if it is there, he returns home and forfeits a day's wages.

"So, some days we get to eat. Some days we don't," he said.

(The name of the reporter has been withheld for security reasons)

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Mike Collett-White)

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