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September 26, 2011

Inside Damascus, a city on edge

By Lyse Doucet BBC News, Damascas

Syria is no different from many countries across the Arab world engulfed this year in unprecedented protests.

But getting in to tell this story has been far more difficult. Reporting restrictions means there have been few journalists here to witness this story firsthand.

A rare official permission to enter means we can now report from the ground, albeit with a government minder at our side on the streets.

The roads of Damascus are still choked with traffic. The ancient old city, with its maze of narrow alleys, hasn’t lost its charm or bustle.

Syrians still throng the cobbled streets in the covered markets, browsing in stalls selling everything from fashionable head scarves to the latest fashion in tight-fitting sequined jeans.

But beneath the surface, this is clearly a city on edge, with a people worried about an uncertain future.

Business is bad. Most factories are only paying about 65% of the salaries and have had to lay off employees.

Government supporter confronts Lyse Doucet: “You are not telling the truth about Syria… Syria is very quiet”

“We’re suffering and we know its going to get worse and worse before it ends,” said one of Syria’s top business executives who, like most people, would only speak off the record.

Worried about future

There are almost no tourists in what was once a choice destination for travellers. Some owners of the delightful boutique hotels opened in recent years told us they may be forced to close.

“I am worried about the days that are coming, worried about business, money, our life here. I hope it will be fixed soon,” said one shopkeeper who approached us in the old city.

How would he fix it? “I love [President] Bashar al-Assad. We give him not one chance, but 100 chances to bring about change.”

Another man standing next to an array of burlap sacks brimming with Syrian nuts and dried fruit, turned on us, shouting that the foreign news channels were lying.

“You are not telling the truth about Syria. Everyone loves the president. Twenty-three million people love him.” he said angrily.

Asked about the growing protests, in cities and towns outside Damascus, he conceded maybe “10,000 don’t like him”. He used the phrase used by the government that the protesters are mostly “armed gangs”.

Iranian tourists shop for toys in the old city - 24 September There are few tourists left in a once popular destination

In a country where it’s never been easy to ask Syrians about politics in public, the only people who wanted to speak openly were those who expressed what seemed to be genuine support for their 46-year-old president. Bashar al-Assad took over from his father Hafez al-Assad on his death in 2000.

But it’s impossible to know what people really think in the midst of such tension. One man who insisted there were “no problems” quickly changed his tune once the government minder was out of earshot. “I can’t tell you what I really think,” he whispered furtively.

There is no visible security presence in the centre of Damascus, but plainclothes police are known to be everywhere. We begin to spot a few familiar faces.

Syria’s immediate harsh response to protests, including the revival of a militia deployed during protests in the 1980s, has blocked protesters here from capturing a strategic square in the heart of the city.

‘One family’

But there have been growing protests, and violent clashes, including targeted killings, in some of the suburbs.

There have also been brave acts of defiance closer to the centre, but even the occasional bold unfurling of a flag or banner has been suppressed within moments.

Portrait of President Assad on a Damascus street - 24 September The only people prepared to speak were those who supported President Assad

Colourful banners festooning the streets at key intersections proclaim: “Dialogue is the only way to resolve our problems.”

In one glass-fronted shop, we see a new selection of Bashar al-Assad memorabilia alongside the shiny posters of him which have always been ubiquitous. Now there are key chains, and ceramic plates and stickers with “I love Bashar” and “Proud to be Syrian”.

“It’s the truth,” says the shopkeeper who comes out to talk to us. ”

The naufara coffee shop, lying in the shadow of the grand Ummayad mosque, is still packed night and day with Damascenes drinking sweet dark coffee and smoking the popular water tobacco.

The city’s only traditional storyteller still holds court, recounting epic Arab tales of ancient conflicts and heroes of old.

“All Syrians are one family and we have a good future,” effused storyteller Shadi Rashid al-Khallah when I asked him about Syria’s current story.

But it’s a story that’s still being written and is still hard to tell.

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Listening Post : Al Jazeera’s change of guard

click on image

AJE : Meltdown

In the first episode of Meltdown, we hear about four men who brought down the global economy: a billionaire mortgage-seller who fooled millions; a high-rolling banker with a fatal weakness; a ferocious Wall Street predator; and the power behind the throne.

The crash of September 2008 brought the largest bankruptcies in world history, pushing more than 30 million people into unemployment and bringing many countries to the edge of insolvency. Wall Street turned back the clock to 1929.

But how did it all go so wrong?

Lack of government regulation; easy lending in the US housing market meant anyone could qualify for a home loan with no government regulations in place.

Also, London was competing with New York as the banking capital of the world. Gordon Brown, the British finance minister at the time, introduced ‘light touch regulation’ – giving bankers a free hand in the marketplace.

All this, and with key players making the wrong financial decisions, saw the world’s biggest financial collapse.

Meltdown is a four-part investigation that takes a closer look at the people who brought down the financial world. It can be seen on Al Jazeera English from Tuesday, September 20, at the following times GMT: Tuesday: 2000; Wednesday: 1200; Thursday: 0100; Friday: 0600; Saturday: 2000; Sunday: 1200; Monday: 0100; Tuesday: 0600.

Click on image

Mourning, outrage, disbelief over woman’s mutilation in Syria

By Salma Abdelaziz, CNN
September 23, 2011 — Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Zainab Alhusni, 19, turned up beheaded and dismembered after Syrian security forces whisked her away.
Zainab Alhusni, 19, turned up beheaded and dismembered after Syrian security forces whisked her away.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • “They killed the rose Zainab,” protesters’ placards say
  • Zainab Alhusni’s death is called “appalling” by the United Nations
  • The woman was seized to get at her brother, many say

(CNN) — A young woman whisked away by Syrian security forces to coax the surrender of her activist brother turned up beheaded and dismembered, activists and human rights groups say, yet another high-profile display of cruelty in the conflict-wracked nation.

Nineteen-year-old Zainab Alhusni stepped away from her Homs residence last month to buy groceries.

Her family never saw her again until security forces returned her mutilated corpse, two opposition activist groups operating inside Syria and Amnesty International told CNN.

As reports of the torture sparked outrage across Homs and the rest of the world, amateur video surfaced of dozens of woman protesting the death.

“They killed the rose Zainab,” their placards said.

“If it is confirmed that Zainab was in custody when she died, this would be one of the most disturbing cases of a death in detention we have seen so far,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The case also drew the antipathy of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which characterized the incident as “appalling” and as one example of the “targeting and attacking of families and sympathizers of the protesters by security forces.”

The ferocious Syrian government crackdown against dissenters began in mid-March when anti-government protests unfolded. The number of people killed over the past six months has reached at least 2,700, according to the U.N. human rights office. Some activist groups put the toll at around 3,000.

Zainab’s brother Mohammed Alhusni — a prominent opposition activist praised by colleagues for leading anti-government protests and treating the wounded — had been evading authorities for weeks when his sister disappeared, said the Homs Quarters Union, an activist group.

“The secret police kidnapped Zainab so they could threaten her brother and pressure him to turn himself in to the authorities. The government often uses this tactic to get to activists,” a union media coordinator told CNN.

The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an activist group, said security forces called Zainab’s family to trade her “freedom for her pro-democracy activist brother’s surrender,” LCC said.

Mohammed Alhusni was eventually slain on September 10, when security forces fired on demonstrators in Homs.

When the family retrieved Mohammed’s body from a Homs military hospital, medical officials told relatives about another unclaimed body with the label “Zainab Alhusni” that had been kept in a hospital freezer for some time.

Days later, Zainab’s family received the woman’s headless and limbless corpse, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Amnesty International and the Homs Quarters Union said.

The Homs Quarters Union provided a video to CNN showing the pale trunk of a female body beside a detached head with long black hair among dismembered limbs.

Authorities forced Zainab’s mother to sign a document saying both Zainab and Mohammad had been kidnapped and killed by an armed gang, Amnesty International said in an online statement.

Syrian authorities could not be reached for comment on the Alhusni case. The Syrian government has maintained that armed gangs with foreign agendas, not the regime, are responsible for the violence that has plagued the Arab country for months.

CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of the video, the claims, or the death toll because the government has repeatedly denied requests for journalists to report inside Syria.

Video hard to watch here

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