A torn picture of Yasser Arafat stares out at me as I step out of the taxi into the dark of the night in the heart of the Palestinian camp – a stark contrast to the glitzy old city of bars, restaurants and expensive hotels I had left behind, an area which is more like a ‘Damascus theme park’ for American tourists than a real place where real people lived – well it used to be before the current unrest. Looking at Yasser I wonder briefly how many tourists ever ventured out here, or even knew it existed.
Ali (not his real name) is looking at his computer as I arrive, watching news from Facebook of a close friend who has been arrested, and then news of another, and another, as the Syrian security forces move in on the ring-leaders behind the protests. He knows the fate that will face his friends all too well; blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs for hours on end with days of interrogation, my friend was one of the very first demonstrators captured on the first day of protests here in Syria.
He recalls how he was beaten whilst blindfolded then, 15 hours later, pulled into a room at midnight, the blindfold was removed to find a famous Syrian general sitting directly opposite him. He’d seen pictures of this man sitting with the president, now he was sitting in front of him, smiling, “We are very sorry about this”, the general told him, “Please do not worry about anything, you are a free man, but before you go we would like to ask some questions”, looking puzzled he asked Ali “Why do you protest, what do you want, if you tell me I can help you, I have direct links to the president?” Clearly the outbreak of protests were concerning the Assad regime and they wanted to make every effort to nip them in the bud. Ali seized on this amazing chance to talk with the general until 3am stating the protesters 3 main demands…
1 – The lifting of emergency law, 2 – A free media, 3 – Opposition parties to be allowed.
He was then taken from the prison in a chauffeur-driven car and released close to home, a couple of days passed and the general rang to say he is will get back to him soon.
“At this time the protesters were not asking for the president to go, we wanted reform through him, it was his chance, then a protest took place the following Friday and for some reason the brother of president, Mahar, ordered the first shootings of protesters, the general never bothered to call back”.
Then Ali remembers, he knew… he recounts “When I saw the first dead bodies I knew it was the end for the president, our demands changed, he and his regime had to go”.
The more blood is spilled here the more the regime’s days seem numbered, I ask Ali if he thinks the protester’s would have stopped had the president given into their demands, isn’t the nature of these protests to completely overthrow and replace the regime? “Yes” he admits smiling in a childlike way. “Shall we meet tomorrow night and drink Arak?” I ask him as I put on my coat to leave, after all, drinking in the park is, for now, one small freedom that is still tolerated in this dictatorship.
The opposition groups here recently estimated that over 500 protesters had been killed and that up to 1000 were missing – despite the supposed lifting of emergency law, the authorities still raid peoples homes and effectively kidnap people in the middle of the night, their whereabouts remaining unknown.
I awake this morning to hear that a wave of opposition group members and protesters have been arrested overnight in an apparent crackdown, I wonder what the generals are thinking now, if they really think force, fear, and killing can curb the protesters willingness to take to the streets.