23 May 2011
Friday started with the same ominous silence, from my balcony I looked down upon the empty eerie street, what would this day hold I thought to myself… I couldn’t help wondering if Obama’s recent comments condemning Assad for the killing of unarmed demonstrators and demanding that he either ‘reform or get out of the way’ would spur them on.
From my balcony I could see the 50 or so guys given a days work by the government to ‘look out’ for protesters, some sat around smoking, others walked up and down twirling their ‘government issue’ wooden batons. The empty building where they are stationed is away from the public eye but close enough to be on hand if needed.
Across the street a man sits with his legs swinging out of his window, he is also looking down onto the empty market street below, “Good morning” he shouts, I look over stunned for a moment, he is perched between two huge pictures of the President, I smile at him thinking it may not be such a good morning for many of the thousands taking to the streets across Syria today. Though once again as usual, here in central Damascus, we hear and see nothing.
I am now the only guest staying in this 3 storey hotel – so I eat my breakfast alone accompanied only by a couple of goldfish and the cleaner who smokes as she serves breakfast. The news blasts out from the foyer, Friday payers finish and everyone braces themselves for another day of protest, in what has become known as the Arab spring.
Yesterday I met a taxi-driver who was convinced it was well-organised well-funded ‘outsiders’ who were taking to the streets to protest against the government, he told me that the television images of people dying in the Syrian streets were from Iraq not Syria; such is the power of Syria’s state run media.
Later I meet a European lady who is married to a local here in Damascus, she asks if I have seen any ‘action’ since arriving, “No” i reply, “Nothing”, “See” she proclaims “It is being blown all out of proportion by the Western media, they are pushing for change here more than the people themselves”.
But it seems my dentist has finally seen through the smoke and mirrors as she confides in me that she is frustrated and disappointed with the once treasured leader, “We didn’t expect him to behave like this… all this killing” she says sadly.
The awful images of protesters laid out on the floor and being jumped on by soldiers screaming “We’ll give you freedom” shocked the world. When the authorities tried to say it wasn’t filmed in Syria, that it was from Iraq, and that the soldiers seen abusing the protesters were American Special Forces, a 22 year old protester, Ahmad Bayassi, one of those who had been filmed being trampled on and kicked whilst laying on the floor, bravely went back to the spot where it happened and recorded himself there again stating that it was true and showing his identity card to prove that he was from Syria.
A couple of days ago after recording himself the young man was back in the hands of the security services, human rights organisations believed he had been electrocuted and that he had lost consciousness from the torture, there were also reports that he had died – rumour spreads fast in Syria these days. Then, a few days later the man appeared on Syrian state television and announced that “When they said I was tortured and killed I was surprised, no-one has imprisoned me, and I am leading a normal life.”
News starts to filter through via Al Jazeera of 10 or 20 deaths, but Damascus is as peaceful as it was last Friday. The empty streets, the 10 or more empty buses waiting, engines running, the army of baton carrying men sitting, smoking, in the security compound just round the corner, all waiting to see if the protesters dare to show their faces.
The streets feel nervous – people are afraid of being out in case they are wrongly (or rightly) picked-up by the secret police. But, again, no demonstration comes my way, it seems that the protests are happening away from the capital, in the smaller poorer rural towns which have been crippled by poverty, unemployment, and corruption, the parts of Syria that are generally hidden away from tourists.
And soon life returns to normal here in Damascus, the people finally feel safe enough to come out of their homes, and I’m heading out for a pint – My taxi driver is already drunk, sipping away on his 10% alcoholic beer as he speeds along, the car, the driver, and me, swing from side to side to the Arabic music blaring out of his radio as we enter the glitzy old city.
Another Friday is almost over, tomorrow is another day for this troubled country, a day when 60 more families will morn 60 loved ones killed simply for demanding freedom. My cab driver hands me his beer as I get out of the car, I take a swig, hand it back, and walk off into the Damascus night.