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DOUMA, Syria – Two days after Syrian troops declared Douma liberated from rebel fighters and 10 days since a suspected chemical attack, a tour of the town just east of Damascus on Monday revealed widespread destruction and traumatized residents who recalled months spent cowering in crowded underground shelters infested with lice, with barely any food or water.
Except for the Russian and Syrian troops patrolling the streets, few people could be seen in Douma, the majority of its residents now displaced to rebel-held areas to the north.
The main hospital, courthouse and municipal buildings were largely reduced to rubble, while the nearby Grand Mosque, famed for its towering arches, white dome and majestic palm trees was riddled with bullet and shell holes — testimony to the intense government assault the town was subjected to since being seized by the rebels six years ago.
Douma was one of the first areas to rise up against President Bashar Assad's government and until a few weeks ago it was a major threat to his seat of power in Damascus, as rebels pelted it with shells, disrupting normal life. On Saturday, Syrian government forces entered Douma for the first time since 2012, marking the biggest victory for Assad's forces since the conflict began in 2011.
On Monday, the few remaining residents were able to move around safely for the first time in months following the crushing government offensive and a yearslong siege, tightened even further last year, that had starved the town, once the bread basket of the capital, of food, medical supplies and other essentials.
On an Associated Press tour of the town, organized by the Assad government, hundreds of men, women and children could be seen standing in long lines waiting their turn to get pasta, vegetables and loaves of bread piled on government trucks and handed out for free.
"This is the first time I will eat wheat bread in years," said Naim Saqour, an 18-year-old, after receiving a pack of nine Arab loaves from the government employees. Saqour said that he and his family had survived for months on olives and small amounts of barley bread.
"Our happiness is double now. We are eating wheat bread and we sleep without fear," said tailor Alaa Khobiyeh. "Most importantly, we sleep above ground not underground."
Many residents blamed the greed of some local businessmen and the main rebel group in Douma, the Saudi-backed Army of Islam, for much of their misery, by raising food prices to make more money and hiding the scant food supplies from people in need. After the Army of Islam left town, they said, they discovered the militants had stored large amounts of rice, flour, wheat, canned goods and other food — enough, they said to feed residents for months.
Residents also spoke of several local families who used to buy large amounts of food and hoard it to sell later at a far higher price, making most food products out of reach for most people.
Wafaa al-Seikh, 60, spoke wistfully of a time, years ago, when she used to cook a different dish for her family of six children and have a shower every day. For the past year, she said she could not afford to pay for staples like sugar, which shot up to 18,000 Syrian pounds ($40) a kilogram (2.2 pounds), from its normal price of 500 Syrian pounds (about $1.10).
"A month could pass without having a shower," said the woman, who had rice for the first time in years on Sunday. She described the past two months during the army's offensive to capture Douma as terrifying, with time passing slowly in shelters with little food and lice spreading among residents.
Douma was the scene of a suspected chemical weapons attack on April 7 that killed more than 40 people and hastened the rebels' surrender to government forces. During a government-organized trip on Saturday, survivors spoke to the AP of the horror they witnessed from a chlorine-like substance that killed their neighbors, but they blamed the rebels for the attack, without providing any evidence.
On Monday, the Assad government was working on winning the hearts and minds of Douma residents, handing out the free food and pledging to restore services in a timely fashion.
At a meeting on Monday attended by Syrian Finance Minister Maamoun Hamdan, several local bankers and a number of Douma dignitaries, Hamdan promised that services would start improving in coming weeks and mobile bakeries would be deployed in neighborhoods to sell bread, the country's main staple, at cost.
Hamdan said that initial funding of 5 billion Syrian pounds ($10.8 million) had been set aside "for different domains, and if it is not enough then we are ready to fund more."
Maj. Gen. Issam Shehadeh Al-Hallaj, the chief police commander in the region, said that security forces were manning 15 checkpoints set up outside town to secure public properties and maintain order. He said 60,000 residents remained in the town after tens of thousands of rebels and their families left for rebel-held areas in northern Syria over the past two weeks. "We have deployed patrolling forces in all the squares to save the citizens and to spread security," he said.