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With Looting, Syria's Army Isn't Winning Hearts And Minds

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Editor's Note: Throughout the Syrian uprising, the government has allowed few foreign journalists and other outsiders into the country. In this report, a Syrian citizen describes life in the capital, Damascus. For security reasons, NPR is not identifying the author.

As the Syrian military struggles against rebel fighters, it seems the army has not been paying a lot of attention to winning the hearts and minds of civilians.

An increasing number of civilians report that soldiers have moved into their homes and apartments while conducting operations, and trashing, looting or even burning places before leaving.

Consider the case of Abu Mohammad, a retired widower who lived in what was until recently the relatively calm Damascus suburb of Hameh.

On a warm and sunny morning in October, he fixed his daily cup of Turkish coffee and stepped out on the balcony to enjoy it.

"Then, out of nowhere, I was sitting here, and right there a helicopter appeared," he said, pointing just feet in the air from his balcony.

"And bam!" he continued, describing the first shell fired from the helicopter. "I saw the missile hit that building, and I thought that's it, it's over for me. I either get out of here or it's over."

He rushed to evacuate, along with almost all his neighbors, he recalled. Several thousand Syrian troops entered the area to conduct what they called a cleansing operation of terrorists — the government's term for the rebels.

Abu Mohammad went to stay with his daughter and son-in-law in downtown Damascus, which has been a mostly safe area.

He returned home after just a few days and was shocked by what he found.

Dozens of soldiers had been squatting in his living room and bedrooms. They appeared to have spent the night there.

"Maybe 50 of them. They'd slept in my bed with their boots on. They bathed in my bathtub and dried off using my towels. They ate all my food, all the mouneh," he said, referring to the nonperishable food staples that Syrian households stock.

"I found my homemade pickled eggplants stuffed in between my sofa cushions, with olive oil and all," he said.

The soldiers had also stacked the household appliances near the main entrance, apparently getting ready to take them.

But Abu Mohammad turned up before the items disappeared. He had worked in a sensitive government job before he retired, and he threatened to lodge complaints up the chain of command. The soldiers then departed without taking his appliances, though Abu Mohammad later discovered his camera and other smaller items were missing.

Outside his main door, right by the elevator he shares with the neighbors on his floor, Abu Mohammad found mounds of clothing that the soldiers had accumulated from various apartments, seemingly getting ready to divide it all up and make off with it.

"There was a mound of men's whites. Another mound of women's intimates. They had men's shirts and men's pants separated also into two mounds. Children's clothing, and on and on," Abu Mohammad said, adding that he heard the soldiers bickering over what they would get.

Abu Mohammad was luckier than many of his neighbors. He and other residents described a "caravan of military vehicles loaded up with our stuff: washing machines and big screen TVs and sofas and patio furniture and lamps and chairs."

Such cases are far from isolated. These practices have become so widespread that Syrians joke the best way for a young man to afford marriage these days is to join the army and load up on war booty.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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