Syria volunteers helping the displaced

Demolished  houses in Mezzah, a suburb of Damascus that has sided with the rebels.

Story highlights

  • Residents in Mezzah say they are being punished for supporting the Syrian rebels
  • But the flipside is a community coming together to help each other
  • Volunteers help people bombed from their homes or with food runs or teaching
  • Along the way, they say, they feel they are getting their country back

The streets are eerily quiet with hardly a living person on them. Damaged buildings hang over the roads where once people would have been living and working.

Those that do brave the streets of Mezzah, a suburb of Damascus, move in pairs or small groups but not alone. In the tiny side streets children used to play, but not anymore.

In a series of interviews with activists, they described how the city has deteriorated during the Syrian civil war. They said on the night before Eid al-Fitr -- the festival that ends the Ramadan fasting period -- and the streets were in darkness instead of a party mood.

By 8:00 p.m. few people were in the shop-lined streets and 90 minutes later only those who have to be on the streets were out of their homes.

But as locals stay inside, security patrols -- both official Syrian security forces and the thuggish Shabiha militia loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad -- are common.

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When tension is high, a police patrol could pass the same spot more than 30 times, local activists in Mezzah told CNN.

They said Mezzah is one of the suburbs that showed sympathy to the uprising and the Free Syrian Army -- and now they are being punished by the regime.

Residents say public services like gas, electricity and street cleaning have been either reduced or stopped. In recent days, they say, rather than cleaning walls of anti-Assad graffiti, security forces have simply knocked down the offending wall.

Activists say they are now organizing and taking on some of those duties previously administered by the government.

Lana, a married 31-year-old, said "This uprising showed us the best in ourselves. You see young men and women taking care of their neighborhood by cleaning it and providing for those whose houses were destroyed."

She added: "We are calculating the number of houses destroyed, families displaced and the amount of damage inflicted by the regime. We have a lot of work after the regime falls!"

Before the war, local civic action or voluntary work was rare.

Public services like cleaning the streets or supplying basic gas were mostly carried out by the government.

Religious and charitable organizations were also mostly supervised by various government departments.

In such a suffocating environment, anti-Assad activists say, there was little that people could do voluntarily for their communities -- and over time the motivation to do anything was also lost.

Dina, an opposition activist who has left Syria, explained: "When you don't feel that the country is yours, why bother changing it?"

But now the cry to rebuild, enhance and provide for the country is increasingly being heard in Mezzah.

Early in the uprising, the activitists helped out the displaced on an ad hoc basis, but as the crisis dragged on and the damage increased they got more organized.

Some initiatives were launched though social networking websites like Facebook.

One of these is a voluntary group called "I want to help." On its Facebook page they say: "We work apart from politics ... The idea of this initiative is to create a network to spread awareness and provide humanitarian aid."

And smaller initiatives have branched from this group across suburbs. Today, there is "I want to help Mezzah" and "I want to help Midan" -- both neighborhoods in Damascus -- and other sites.

These groups' activities include preparing schools for refugees, cooking for displaced families, teaching first aid and providing for poor communities who were severely hit by the economic difficulty the country is witnessing.

Now, some in Mezzah feel they are getting their country back.

Raya, a former school teacher, said: "When we heard that the Shabiha were coming to our neighbourhood, the young men in our building organized themselves in one committee. They closed the door of the building and assign each one of them a specific task to secure the area.

"When the security forces chase young men after a protest, most housed in the neighborhood would open their doors to hide these young men although it was extremely dangerous if the security attacked any of these houses."

Lana, who lives in Mezzah, said: "For a couple of days we could not leave our houses. Food supplies started to run out. A young man then took his car and went under the shelling and bought vegetables and food supplies for everybody in the neighbourhood.

"There are many things we used to do to go about our lives that we can't do today. Nowadays, I would never take a taxi alone. I would never send my children to the closeby shop alone. The 15-minute walk I used to make from my house to my family's suddenly needs to be at a specific time and with somebody's company"

She added: "I've lived here for my whole life, but I've never felt that attached to the place... We now feel that this is our Mezzah, it is our Damascus and we will take care of it."