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Syrian and Russian attacks on rebel-held areas of Syria often employ bombings and sieges to force out rebels at a horrific civilian cost. But the Syrian government says there are some places where it can negotiate with locals to get fighters either to lay down their weapons or to go elsewhere. NPR's Peter Kenyon visited one Damascus suburb that was cleared of fighters.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: A front-end loader scrapes away at an earthen berm beside an army checkpoint in Qudsaya, just outside Damascus. Minutes later, the first civilian car to pass this way in about two years goes by, heading down a street crowded with children coming home from school and shoppers stocking up at newly reopened stores. Our visit to Qudsaya required multiple attempts at obtaining military permission and a government-approved interpreter. One of the newest returnees is Abdul Kandour. He's just unshuttered his small falafel shop and is handing out samples of the fried chick pea patties. When asked how it's going, he shrugs as if to say, can't complain.
ABDUL KANDOUR: (Through interpreter) It's good, but not typical.
KENYON: Kandour says it's good to see residents out shopping again and cars going by. Relief at the return of mundane daily routines is widespread here. Mohammad Aoudeh, an elderly man carrying two full shopping bags, is happy to see the backs of the fighters, who he says were just young men from in and around Qudsaya.
MOHAMMAD AOUDEH: (Through interpreter) In my view, they weren't rebels. They were an armed gang.
KENYON: A woman pauses to talk while her young son tugs at her hand. Abeer Shameel tells my interpreter that the fighters were bringing misery down on the town.
ABEER SHAMEEL: (Through interpreter) They are actually who used to start, you know, the problems and then to kidnap soldiers and start clashes and firing from inside Qudsaya to the checkpoints around the area. So they were actually the cause of the problem.
KENYON: Others don't judge the fighters so harshly. Sheikh Adel Mesto says he headed the local committee that negotiated with the government, and he says the fighters helped end the violence.
SHEIKH ADEL MESTO: (Through interpreter) The armed groups could see that more clashes with the military would mean this town is destroyed, so they took the step to leave to spare the town from destruction.
KENYON: The clearing of Qudsaya fighters was arranged through Syria's Ministry of National Reconciliation. The title is aspirational. Minister Ali Haidar knows that for now the best he can hope for are piecemeal local reconciliations like this one. International attention naturally focuses on the worst humanitarian cases, places like the Damascus suburb of Darayya which suffered a four-year military siege with aid deliveries turned backed by the Syrian army. By the time the fighters and surviving civilians left earlier this year, Darayya was destroyed. There was nothing to go back to.
Haidar disputes the U.N.'s assertion that thousands of Darayya civilians were starving, and he says those who did escape the area were given housing in another Damascus suburb. The reconciliation minister also says he can offer a list of other examples where the military was less heavy-handed and neighborhoods were largely saved.
ALI HAIDAR: (Through interpreter) Take the western countryside of Homs. It has so many villages. It has so many civilians who have returned. And an important example is Hussainiya area in Damascus outskirts. More than 60,000 civilians have returned to their houses, and out of that, 30,000 Palestinians. We don't know why nobody have mentioned this in the media.
KENYON: Haidar says the process is working. Civilians who fled the clashes return home once fighters either lay down their arms or take them and leave, usually for Idlib province in the north. But departed fighters say it was more coercion the negotiation. NPR reached one of the young men who got on the bus out. He gave only his initials - M.A. - because even today, he's worried about revenge attacks on his parents who are still in Qudsaya. He says as the talks with the government grew more intense, so did the military pressure. Until one day, he says, the army made clear how far it was prepared to go.
M A: (Through interpreter) Finally they literally said to us, either you get out of this town or we completely destroy the place. They literally said that. They'd destroy the town and then we'd have to leave anyway, like in Darayya. So a group of us decided we're better off leaving. We didn't want the town to be destroyed.
KENYON: The government says the point of the negotiation was to save the town, not destroy it. On the second floor a good sized municipal building, a crowd presses around a small doorway. This is where people come to report all manner of problems with the homes they're returning to. Sanitation, water, electricity, every issue comes through here and a team is sent to investigate. It looks to be a slow process, but after the past two years of violence, people seem happy to wait in line. Outside, 6-year-old Hala (ph) is walking home from elementary school.
HALA: (Foreign language spoken).
KENYON: She says she used to be at another school, but when her grandparents heard the Qudsaya road was open again, they decided to come back to their home so now she's going to school here and it's fun. School is a distant dream for 6-year-old girls in other parts of Syria, where efforts to negotiate a similar agreement with fighters have failed. But the government seems intent on pursuing its strategy of trying to convince people that these piecemeal settlements are better than devastating conflict. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Damascus.
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