Ghouta's Guardians: Syrian children's charity closes after intimidation campaign
A Syrian civil society group providing urgent care to children in Damascus' besieged suburbs has been forced to temporarily shut down, with its workers going into hiding.
It comes after a Douma court ordered the shuttering of Hurras Network's offices, after a "blasphemous" article was published by a magazine based in the same building as the group. The civil society group and media outlet have no formal or informal links with each other, other than part-sharing an address.
On Tuesday, a mob of around 20 men - some armed with knives - stormed the building where Hurras is based, leaving staff to flee for their safety after local security forces refused to intervene.
The court's order to close the offices means that thousands of traumatised or orphaned children formerly provided with protection and support by the network are now left vulnerable to abuse or exploitation.
Given the rampant intimidation of civil society groups by dominant armed groups in Douma, Hurras is now considering closing its doors for good. It was civil society workers who were among the first to take to the streets during the 2011 protests, and activists in Ghouta continue to press for a pluralistic and democratic vision for the revolution.
"Our priority is the safety of our team, but if we have to close it's going to really bad for the children," said Alaa Zaza, programme manager for Hurras.
"We are one of the few organisations working with children in Douma. It is under siege, who is going replace us?"
Place of protest
Douma has been under regime blockade for six years, since widespread protests broke out in the Damascus suburbs leading to rebel fighters - now dominated by Jaish al-Islam - taking over the neighbourhoods.
Since then, Douma's densely packed streets have become daily targets for regime planes, while low-level battles between rival rebel groups have occasionally broken out.
Hurras had had to tread carefully, providing support for children dealing with "toxic trauma", while not upsetting the increasingly authoritarian armed groups that operate in the area.
The network and other NGOs have become a key part of community, providing Ghouta residents with education, social services and healthcare when the regime's authority disintegrated.
Hurras provides psychological support and activities for children in the suburbs affected by the war. They also offer accelerated learning programmes to encourage children working in local businesses to get back into school, and training for capacity-building for NGOs working in the area.
|Hurras works to help children back to school [Hurras Network]
Their offices has become a one-stop-shop for locals looking for advice on education for their children, healthcare or vaccination programmes.
As the name suggests - hurras means "guardian" in Arabic - their workers became protectors of vulnerable children in Eastern Ghouta who might otherwise fall prey to abuse.
Their absence leaves a black hole in Douma, and children will most likely be the main victims.
"This has put our child protection work at risk - 18,000 children who have had to drop out of school to earn money for their families have been helped by Hurras in the past six months," Zaza told The New Arab.
Through the network's intensive-learning programmes, these children have been able to catch up with other students in their class and get the education they deserve.
Every day that Hurras is not working makes it more and more difficult for children to catch up with their peers and continue their education.
If the network is forced to terminate their operations in Syria, a whole generation in Douma could be lost to child labour and other forms of terrifying exploitation.
Campaign of intimidation
Hurras' founder believes the latest actions against Hurras are not a mistake by authorities but are part of an ongoing campaign of intimidation.
He said that some rebel groups in Douma are looking to take control of independent NGOs - outside their command - and silence non-violent activists.
"There have always been differences with these groups about the division of power. We are against one group dominating local authority and the security forces. This is what we stood against in 2011 during the revolution and what we will continue to do," said Zaza.
Since then, certain local authorities have attempted to interfere with the work of Hurras and dictate to NGOs what they should and shouldn't be doing. Some feel uncomfortable with one body dictating their views on others in Douma and feel it goes against the principles of a free and pluralistic civil society.
Read also: Inside Douma - a desperate portrait of life in Syria
"We are from the same area as these people and share the same cultural values," Zaza said. "We have never confronted them, it is our job is to educate. But if they claim to be the authority in Douma then they should be protecting us."
The latest incident follows an article published in a magazine based in the same building as Hurras, which the local religious committee condemned this week as blasphemous and complained to the Douma court.
In the article, the author wrote that God was powerless to stop certain things, which goes against conventional opinion here.
Although Hurras is not linked to the media outlet and disagreed with the content of the article, the group was mentioned in a statement issued by the Hay al-Islah wa Dawah (Committee for Reform and Advocacy) on Tuesday condemning the article.
The Islamic committee ordered the closure of all the offices in the building, as a gang of around 20 angry men headed for the offices.
Fearing for their safety, staff called the police - under the same leadership as the local authority - for protection.
|We are from the same area as these people and share the same cultural values.
- Alaa al-Zaza, programme manager, Hurras Network
"They said you have to leave, we can't protect you because we can't control these people," said Zaza.
The offices were ransacked by the group with paraphernalia deemed offensive by the men destroyed.
Leaflets were handed out on the streets of Douma warning that the magazine had published "un-Islamic writings" and again linked Hurras to the media outlet.
On the pamphlets were the names and faces of the magazine editors, along with a worker from Hurras. Zaza is convinced that the campaign of intimidation against their network was not an innocent mistake but orchestrated by powerful local groups.
With the atmosphere growing increasingly hostile, some Hurras workers have been forced into hiding.
They have also had to explain to family and friends that they are completely unrelated to the offending magazine.
"This is very dangerous because anyone can act on this in the name of religion or whatever," Zaza said.
Meanwhile, it has tarnished the reputation of the network in the community, which was always a highly prized by the workers.
The magazine has apologised and its editor-in-chief resigned on Thursday in an effort to minimise the damage, but the future of Hurras Network is still open to question.
"We want other groups in Syria to stand in solidarity with us, because if it is us now then they could be next."
Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin