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.