A moment of peace in Syria's devastating conflict
It’s an incredible scene: Syrian pro-regime forces mingling amicably with rebel fighters in a southern Damascus suburb.
The powerful images of one of the ceasefires around the nation’s capital were captured by AFP photographer Louai Beshara and reported on by journalist Rim Haddad from the agency’s Damascus bureau. Here, Haddad tells the story behind the truce, a rare bright spot in a devastating conflict that has lasted almost three years and claimed more than 140,000 lives.
Pro-regime troops (right) speak with a rebel fighter in Babbila, during the ceasefire agreement on February 17, 2014. (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)
By Rim Haddad
The Syrian army asked us if we wanted to go somewhere that might be of interest, but we had no idea what we were going to find.
Of course we agreed and were soon leaving in a convoy -- about 15 journalists working for foreign and domestic media. Syrian troops drove in the lead car and we stopped once we got to the entrance to Babbila, a rebel-held town that has been under a lengthy army siege, about 10 kilometres south of Damascus.
On the way into the town, we all got onto a bus, which took us to the main road. We drove past buildings and shops destroyed by bomb blasts and fires. There were residents right there, standing in the middle of the ruins. On Babbila's main street, every single building had been either destroyed or damaged.
The ruined town. (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)
Some rebels got onto the bus. They told us they hadn’t laid down their arms, but had agreed to a truce. They wouldn’t answer our questions, telling us they’d been told not to speak to reporters but that they might make a statement after 48 hours.
Once we’d gotten off the bus, we spoke to other rebels. They were young, bearded men, some of them sporting black keffiyeh traditional headwear. They said they were Islamists and were not affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The soldiers accompanying us said they were “former terrorists.”
A rebel (left) walks past members of the pro-regime Syrian National Defence Forces in Babbila. (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)
The residents we met with were overjoyed with the ceasefire.
“This is going to let me buy something to eat. I hope the truce works,” said one exhausted-looking local.
Though they didn’t look like they were starving, people seemed to be in awful shape – their clothes were falling apart and their faces were worn with anxiety.
A rebel fighter walks by as as gunmen from both sides ride on a truck in the town of Babbila. (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)
The truce was the latest in a series of local ceasefires in Damascus flashpoints. Such ceasefires come more than a year into fierce daily battles in and around several areas of the city that have led to rebels and President Bashar al-Assad's forces deciding to compromise, with neither side able to claim victory.
Both sides in this bloody conflict are exhausted. Activists say the wave of truces comes after the army turned to siege tactics when it failed to take and neutralise pockets of resistance near the capital, and as rebels failed to achieve their goal of breaking into Damascus proper.
Men shout slogans calling for Syrian unity. (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)
We stayed in Babbila for nearly an hour, and we didn’t hear a single gunshot. Close to us, dozens of people shouted: “One, one, one! The Syrian people are one!" The Damascus provincial governor, Hussein Makhlouf, told the crowd that all the town’s destroyed public services would be rebuilt.
We’d wanted to report on these ceasefires for a while, but the army wouldn’t let us go to the affected areas, saying it was for our own protection. This time, however, it was the army that took the initiative for the story.
(AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)