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On the run

24 May 2011

“I never knew I could have such friends here”, he said as we chatted about life in Syria.

“Becoming part of the revolution has opened my eyes to so many people and friends from all walks of life I could have never expected to meet. For 40 years we have been trained to be suspicious of each other, to not trust anyone and keep yourself to yourself. Now all that is changing and it is so exciting, really Sean, to see the crowds getting bigger each Friday is just amazing.”

“I remember the first time I saw a demonstration, I was on a bus travelling through Damascus and saw a small group of women in the city centre demonstrating for Libya, but I knew then that these people were also demonstrating for Syria.”

Having never protested ever in his life, he said something made him get off the bus and that before he knew it he found himself right in the middle of the crowd of women, the crowd kept growing, first from 25 to 50 then from 50 to 100, it was at this point that the security police moved in and tried moving them along politely at first.

“We didn’t leave, this was for Libya we said, but they knew that it was in fact for Syria and they could almost predict what could follow in the country if something like this wasn’t nipped in the bud.”

“They tried to intimidate the crowd by standing in front of each one of us and filming us with their cameras, saying we will find you and you will pay for this. Then one of the women decided we should walk to the Libyan embassy, then the secret police got angry and tried to top us.” In one exchange a woman was hit in the face by an officer, then the order was passed to arrest everyone.

“I could have escaped but the woman next to me caught my attention, she was screaming in the hands of two baton wielding army officers, I reached over to help the woman and the officers grabbed me instead beating me to the ground and pushing me on the waiting bus, fortunately the lady wasn’t taken, but 12 of us were.”

With their heads pushed to the ground in a line in the central aisle of an empty bus they were beaten all the way to the security centre, ‘Traitors’ the officers screamed as they kept on beating them.

When they arrived at the security centre they were greeted by a general who in an obvious change of tactic was very apologetic about the treatment they had received and explained that the ‘patriotic’ officers mistook them as traitors. Then they were asked to never do such a protest again otherwise next time they would receive serious punishment, they had to wait an hour for their phones to be returned, it is thought all their contacts and messages had been copied, “And then we were free. This was my first experience of protest in my life”.

A few days after his arrest he received a telephone call to meet with a secret-police officer, the officer wanted him to ‘help’ track and find the people behind the protests, the ringleaders.

He didn’t know what to do and anyway he didn’t really know any of the organisers… But facing such a dangerous dilemma – what could happen if he refused to help the security services? he went to seek advice, and, for the first time, arranged to meet some of the protest organisers. They advised him to no longer answer calls and, like most of them had been forced to do, start to move from place to place, never staying in one house for too long. Since then he, like most of the protesters here, has been living a life ‘on the run’.

“It will change won’t it?” he asks me in a lost moment of insecurity, I say I hope so, and that I cannot see Syria ever being the same as it was before the protests started. But there is a niggling doubt I have, as I do with Yemen, that these guys in charge have more to lose than their pride, and because of that more blood will be shed before an end is in sight.

As night falls the front door opens and Ali (whom we have been waiting for) finally arrives… and although they have been Facebook friends for some time he has never actually met the friend I have been passing the time with in person – they immediately give each other a brotherly hug and kiss.

I hadn’t seen Ali for 4 days, and neither had his kids… As the protests against the government continue, and his ‘life on the run’ intensifies, Ali faces having to move out of his house and away from his kids completely, leaving, with the help of his extended family, his eldest son to look after his 4 year old brother until it is safe for Ali to return.

The kids come running excitedly to embrace their dad, and a fleeting moment of fondness is taken before Ali quietly leaves the house again. As the children play I watch from the window as Ali and his friend turn the corner and disappear into the Syrian night.

Rumour + truth = paranoia

18 May 2011

When Ali’s friends were arrested by the security forces the first thing they demanded to know as they beat them was what was their Facebook password.

Rumours are rife that Facebook is being ‘tapped-into’ with the latest high-tech Iranian spying devices; so says a man who had to give-up his desk in a leading telecoms company to an Iranian brought here especially to implement the technology and teach the engineers how to use it. But who really knows, truth rumour, belief, and fact are all mingled into one these days.

Such rumours and stories abound and do nothing but increase the general state of paranoia we are living in so I try to be suspicious of them all. A friend invited me for lunch the other day then called 2 minutes later and cancelled, when I met him later he said there was a bunch of secret police sitting at the next table and he and his friends (of Iraqi decent) didn’t need the attention they would get from eating with one of the very few Westerners left in town.

I’ve noticed my friend becoming more and more anxious these days, “Most people worry more”, he says, “Things were much easier before this unrest, now we can be stopped by the police for no reason”.

In the internet cafe a ‘secret police officer’ enters, my friend sends me an email (I am at the other side of the room), “Keep your fucking mouth shut, there is one of them just over there”, meanwhile, in Arabic, the man enquires about whether the owner is taking copies of customers passports – the owner lies and replies that he always does, I make a quiet exit out of the place.

We walk the long way home avoiding the secret police station now manned 24 hours and more vigilant then ever, my friends closest friend had been arrested for attending a small demo 5 days ago, he was caught because he ran back to help a woman who’d fallen, after 5 days in a tiny room with 26 other men, bound and blindfolded, he was released, he brought with him horrific stories of beatings and torture. They had picked on his friend the most because he had previously been in prison for political reasons, they would beat him, screaming “Is this the freedom you want?”

On the television in the corner of the room I can see the graves of men being unearthed, their blackened hands bound and tied, killed by bullets to their heads, are these civilians, or more soldiers executed by fellow soldiers for not killing civilians, nothing is clear, facts are changed, truth is no longer relevant? Now there are images of tanks rolling across the countryside (just minutes away from here), intercut with scenes of soldiers making their way steadily, heroically, across the green pastures, it looks like a real war out there I think to myself, whilst, from the ‘safety’ of my Hummus restaurant, life passes by quietly.

Damascus is a city of wonderful spicy smells and great vivacious food dishes which have, for a moment, distracted me from the troubles on the edge of town where well over 1000 Syrians have now been killed by the regime in its crackdown on the democracy protests.

Soon, my friend joins me for Hummus – he cannot hold back at his anger at the thought of his friend, a doctor, being subjected to such torture and humiliation at the hands of the secret police. He tells me of new rumours that the Government are going to install CCTV cameras all around town – he says Syria will be like Orwell’s 1984 – I joke that the UK already is, he replies that the difference here is that the CCTV is to be used to identify protesters and hunt them down… a little different to how it’s used in the UK he continues, I tell him that is exactly what the police in the UK use it for at, and after, demonstrations… We talk and eat, lost in the lazy sun, tasty pickles, and fresh hot Hummus, for a moment we are transported, no longer in Syria.

Suddenly, my friend stops and glances to his side, “Fuck me it’s one of them” a man stands close-by staring at us, he is in his late 50’s, behind him a younger man also stares. My friend tells me to finish-up and leave, he stands up nervously walking around the big man who doesn’t move an inch, I watch my friends nervousness against the curiosity of the large man, wondering who is making who nervous here… such is the paranoia inflicting this nation right now.

My friend suddenly changes tack and instead of trying to leave talks directly to the man firmly shaking his hand, a smile breaks across the strangers face, it appears that the man is out with his son and is merely curious about us two guys talking excitedly and animated in English. As the man and his son walk to another table I breathe a semi sigh of relief, nudging my friend and repeating that it was simply a father and his son out for a meal, nothing to be worried about, a silly misunderstanding, maybe my friend says maybe you are right, but then again…

The missed opportunity

03 May 2011

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.

Bin Laden was killed on my birthday

02 May 2011

I awoke in sleepy old Damascus with nothing much on my mind, so I went downstairs and was greeted by the receptionist who told me that the American’s had killed Osama Bin Laden. I sat at a table, opened my laptop to learn from my Facebook friends that it was also my birthday… I celebrated silently alone, just me and a boiled egg at breakfast in Damascus, thinking to myself that maybe I’ll have a birthday drink later with (now that I have finally managed to track him down) the guy I’ve come all the way to Syria see.

After breakfast I made a visit to my religious dentist but I couldn’t give her the chocolates I had brought for her because I suddenly noticed that they contained whisky. What a shame I thought, and decided to keep them for myself seeing as I’d just learnt that it was my birthday.

She was surprised to see me, I told her I would travel a long way for my dentist… Then I had to admit that my flight here was cheaper than the quote I was given in London for root canal treatment and a new front tooth – A tooth I lost a couple of months ago in Yemen. My dentist smiled and said quietly “I hope you never mentioned my name to security at the airport when you entered”, I suddenly get the disturbing feeling that my sheer presence here means trouble for locals; only those active in the protests seem willing to see me.

My dentist talks about ‘the situation’ with mixed views saying it is difficult to know what is going on, on one-hand the Syrian news tells its side of the story, and on the other there are, she believed, ‘exaggerated’ reports from BBC / CNN etc. But whilst she needles away at the abscesses in my head releasing globs of horrible poisonous puss she says she believes that only the president can sort this mess out. I ask her if it is too late for reforms, that the protests are like snowballs rolling down a hill, that the momentum is building for a complete change. “But change to what?” she asks, “Why break everything, you should make change through slow reforms… these protesters have no plan or idea of what they want after this”.

Later that night I ventured deep into a Palestinian refugee camp past fading posters of Yasser Arafat on the walls to meet the guy I’d come to Syria to see, “Are we safe meeting here?” I ask as we embrace – it’s been 5 months since I last saw him, “Yes it is safe they cannot come in here” he replies. Once in his home on the 4th floor of an anonymous building I hug and kiss his kids and hand out sweets and chocolates to everyone but hold back the special gift I had brought for my friend, I figured that as a good old-school communist he would be bound to appreciate the lovely royal wedding mug that I suddenly waved in-front of his bemused face, “And….. we can drink whisky from it” I excitedly proclaim as I pull out a couple of sneaky bottles of scotch from deep inside my bag.

During the evening I noticed his attention switching between from our conversation about the demonstrations and the unfolding situation in Syria to his computer and the several Facebook group-chats he has simultaneously open, he tells me his local group decide at 4am whether or not a protest is planned for that day and where and what time they will meet. Facebook has revolutionised the revolution, as well as reminding me that it was my birthday.

We drink whisky together from the royal mug and my friend tells me that the protests are taking a step forward soon, to daily activity rather then just on Friday’s. The clear motive now for all on the streets is the removal of the president and the Ba’athist regime, such thoughts were unimaginable last year when I was sitting here with the same man, yet now, everything seems almost inevitable “Though it may take a year” he says, “They have great force and we have nothing”. This time last year there was no organised opposition in Syria to speak of, just small factions from across the political spectrum, now there is a united opposition with one united goal.

My friend tells me a very sad, but all too familiar, story of a close friend of his just 22 years old, shot in the head and killed just a few days ago. The ‘secret police’ have even called him recently to say that they know he is helping to organise the protests and that when they find him they will kill him. But, unshaken, he continues – after the first protest in Syria on the 6th march he and his 14 year old son were imprisoned for 2 days, now he doesn’t take his kids.

Can we meet tomorrow I ask, “Depends if we are protesting, I will know at 4am” he replies. “What about work?” I ask. “Work?”, he laughs, “There isn’t any work, that is why we’re protesting, and even if there was there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to do the work, our whole time is taken up with the revolution and the removal of the president”. I kiss the kids as I leave, the youngest chants the slogan heard on every protest, “We need a new government, down with Bashar Assad!” It has been a good birthday.

In the dark night I pass through the former tourist hotspot of ‘Old Damascus’ where the once full bars and hotels are now completely emptied of foreigners, I notice new touched-up portraits of the president, though I’m not sure if the new ‘photo-shopped’ revamped image can save him or his regime now.

The old billboards selling washing powder have gone, the new ones show the Syrian flag on one half and a chaotic image on the other with words written in Arabic script pronouncing that ‘It is your destiny choose between reform or ruin’.