A day in the life of a UN observer in Syria
Gen. Robert Mood's job is to convince both sides in Syria's civil war that they're not interested in destroying the other.
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The Syrian opposition is increasingly skeptical about the UN observers mission. Activists have started posting pictures of UN observers smoking water-pipes at sidewalk cafes while atrocities go unmonitored nearby.Skip to next paragraph
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That’s probably a bit unfair, given the limited mandate and resources of the UN mission, but it does strike the visitor that the parking lot at the Damascus hotel where many of the observers stay seems to be full of UN vehicles at any time of the day.
Expectations that the UN observers could help lift the fog of war have also fallen short. Observers haven't been able to establish who is responsible for the big massacres such Although the observers have established that a massacre did occur at Houla, and last week at Al-Qubeir, it has not assigned blame.
The same goes for a massacre in Deir Ez-Zour at the end of May, when the bodies of 13 men were found, shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs. “It is impossible for us to go beyond establishing the facts,” Mood says, “but this is tremendous in itself.”
The people of Muhassan are not convinced. During Mood’s visit, complaints are everywhere. “As soon as you leave here we will be attacked, and what happened in Houla will happen here,” says a man who identifies himself only as Abu Leith.
Muhassan is surrounded by the Syrian Army, which has established forward bases in a school and a water tower. Abu Leith says most men here have not left the area for months, “because they have wanted lists at the checkpoints and most of the men here are on the list.”
The graffiti at the Army checkpoints betrays the mentality of the soldiers. “Assad, or we burn down the country.” In the event, Muhassan was not attacked that night, and all of Deir Ez-Zour had a quiet night during Mood’s overnight stay. But three days later Abu Leith called with the information that the soldiers in the water tower have fired on a mini-bus taking girls to school, killing one girl. The FSA attacked the checkpoint, and the Army responded with shelling, he said.
Could be worse
Still, the UN observer mission is an improvement over an earlier mission of Arab League observers. Activists in Damascus still laugh when they recall how the observers were tricked into going to the wrong neighborhoods because the regime had switched street signs on them.
But in Deir Ez-Zour it was no laughing matter. On a rooftop in a poor area of Deir Ez-Zour, an activist who calls himself Alaa El-Deiri recalls how people gathered in the town’s Midilgi Square last January after word got out that the Arab League observers were coming to town. “The observers never came. After the Army was through 20 protesters had been killed,” says Mr. Deiri.
Last year, Midilgi Square had been Deir Ez-Zour’s own "Tahrir Square." But unlike in Cairo, there was no foreign media to bear witness. For 51 days, pro-democracy protesters held out. Then the army moved in. In the following week, 117 protesters were killed, says El-Deiri. “We are the forgotten city.”
One concrete effect of the UN presence is that the flatscreen TV in the hotel where the observers stay in Deir Ez-Zour is showing Deir Ez-Zour TV, an opposition satellite channel that runs continuous footage of atrocities blamed on the government.
That may seem odd, given that the TV is right next to Assad’s official portrait. But a UN monitor from Morocco is holding the remote.