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Inside Syrian rebel stronghold: 'It is as if the city is on mute'

NBC News

A United Nations convoy makes its way through Douma, Syria, on Tuesday.


DOUMA, Syria -- Surrounded by ancient olive groves, Douma is just ten miles from Damascus but it feels like another world. It is a city under occupation. 

In Damascus, vehicles slow to a halt due to traffic jams. In Douma, there is no traffic. Only a few empty cars are parked on the roadside. 

Shoppers crowd the capital's sidewalks and restaurants do a brisk business. But in neighboring Douma, sidewalks are empty and most of the shops are shuttered with corrugated metal sheets or padlocked steel doors. 

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A few people walk quickly down the empty streets on what must be only the most necessary of errands. They stare straight ahead or look down as they walk. 

Except for the noise of our three-vehicle convoy speeding through town, there is silence. 

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On Tuesday, we drove behind two vans of United Nations observers on a mission to Douma and Harasta to monitor the cease-fire. 

Both cities have been bastions of resistance against the regime where residents stage flash demonstrations even after months of brutal crackdowns. 

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However, there isn't much of a cease-fire left to monitor. Syria is wracked by mounting violence and the U.N. teams have been caught up in two explosions and a shooting. 

Opposition activists said the Syrian security forces have even opened fire on a funeral procession, killing at least 21 people. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

So it's no surprise they speed down the streets and get out of their vans only twice in violence-prone Douma.

Some residents seem worried that the U.N. presence will spur attacks. A man standing with his little daughter and son pulls the girl inside and yanks his unwilling and crying son behind the metal door of his house as we pass. He slams the door shut.

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Our driver points out snipers in the tall building in front of us. 

Every few blocks we pass through military checkpoints, with armed troops behind sand-bagged barricades.

Little interaction
Led by a Moroccan, the U.N. monitors stop briefly at checkpoints to ask Syrian security if there has been any violence. A U.N. 'blue cap' shakes hands with a tiny child in a car stopped at a checkpoint. Otherwise, we do not see the U.N. interact with or talk to civilians.

They get out of their vans at a main checkpoint and the team leader waves us away as he goes to talk with a plainclothes officer in private. As we wait, police, soldiers and plainclothes security look nervously around. 

Fifty-five people were killed and 372 were wounded when two cars exploded in Damascus, Syria earlier on Thursday. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

A soldier explains why they are on edge. "They shoot at us from here and there," he says as he points to neighboring buildings.

He claims the opposition still manages to evade the tight security cordon to spirit in weapons and ammunition. But the military shoots back. 

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According to activists, a civilian was killed in Douma the day we visited and YouTube video which NBC News cannot verify later showed snipers shooting randomly at the city's streets.      

We cross into Harasta, a much livelier town. It is market day. A few shoppers check out vegetables heaped on trays. 

We jostle for position with other cars. Some stores are open and a few shoppers buy bread from a functioning bakery.

Oddly, the town is still silent. There is no chatter or laughter as people go about their business. 

It is as if the city is on mute. 

We pass back through the tense quiet of Douma on our way to the main highway to Damascus. 

We are rejoined by a car full of Syrian intelligence and three carloads of journalists from pro-regime Syrian TV and Al Dunya TV who accompanied us to Douma. They had elected to wait outside the city, unwilling to risk the anger of local residents. 

Our visit, however fleeting, revealed a part of Syria normally seen only in grainy activist video.

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