Middle East

Battle-torn Damascus mourns much-loved cactus of Mezzeh

Cactus trees removed from Mezzeh
Image caption The government feared that cactus trees surrounding Mezzeh were sheltering rebel forces

The uprooting of decades-old cactus trees in a Damascus suburb shocked even battle-weary residents of one suburb, as everyday life succumbs to worsening violence, a BBC correspondent in the city reports.

For the past few days Mezzeh had been under heavy fire from the Syrian government using mortars and helicopters. Rebel fighters were said to be hiding in the fields.

On Sunday, tanks were seen on the Mezzeh highway surrounding all entrances to the Mezzeh fields area.

Explosions and gunfire were heard for most of the day and black smoke filled the sky.

Then, the government removed the cactus trees of Basateen Mezzeh [the fields] to "cleanse" the area of "terrorists".

Almost everyone in town was taken by surprise, many shouted and cried. Although Syria is losing an average of 100 civilians every day, the scene of bulldozers uprooting the cactus trees surrounding Mezzeh fuelled everyone's anger.

During the summer, cactus sellers spread across the streets of Damascus and on Qasioun Mountain. A favourite evening ritual for Damascenes is to end the night by stopping at one of the sellers and eating cold cactus.

People would drive to the main squares of the city to sit on small wooden chairs and eat cactus until the early hours.

Not any more. People are no longer dining or clubbing and there is no cactus on offer.

Damascus is known for its seasonal fruits and produce that flow into the capital from the suburbs.

Figs and pomegranates from Tal; grapes and walnuts from Douma; apples from Zabadani; cactus from Mezzeh; apricots and cherries from Ghouta; garlic from Kissweh - the list is long.

But this summer, Syrians are not enjoying much of these seasonal delicacies. Regime forces have sealed off the suburbs and most peasants have not been able to work because of the violence.

Rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters are hiding in the green fields surrounding Damascus, known as al-Ghouta or the oasis.

Until the mid-1970s, the Ghouta surrounded the eastern and southern edges of Damascus, and some of the old city houses were surrounded by fields.

But under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, most of the green fields were replaced by cement blocks and factories, destroying large parts of the green belt.

Removing the cactus trees of Mezzeh has not only angered local people but cost many their income.

The view here is that the regime is willing to destroy everything in the country to remain in power - including trees that were more than 100 years old.

Abou Alaa, in his mid-50s, fled from Mezzeh fields along with his family. In doing so he lost the field on which he grew cactus.

"All is gone, all is gone," he said in tears.

But although he lost the trees that he spent his life taking care of, he still feels the light will come again.

"Let him [Assad] go and all will be rebuilt again," he said.