secret police

Tag: secret police

On the run

“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

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…

Blood and Kisses

Blood and kisses was how I signed-off my last email to a friend enquiring who had been about life in Syria..

I sit with Ali watching videos he and his friends had uploaded to the internet (who needs state controlled news any more?), video from mobile phones and small cameras recording their demonstrations and the Syrian governments violent reactions to them… “How long will the world stand for this?” I ask Ali, “I mean how many more need to die before they take some action?” “What action?” he asked, “We don’t want an invasion, we want concerted pressure from the international community on our government to stop killing the people.” The people here don’t trust or believe the West and why should they?

Last Friday passed relatively peacefully, only 6 died on that day, an order has apparently been passed down to the military not to shoot at unarmed demonstrators.

I awoke in my room on the top floor of the hotel where I am staying – I have the whole floor and the floor below to myself, such can be the pleasures for tourists in ‘wartime’. From my balcony I could see baton wielding gangs congregating on the first floor of the empty unfinished building opposite, they were hiding, waiting for the demonstrations to begin, these guys are dressed and armed for business it was obvious to see… Maybe they will beat the protesters to death instead of shooting them.

The normally bustling market street was ghost-like, lines of empty buses, their engines running, wait to be filled with protesters to whisk them off to prison, or maybe to a football stadium (such as the football ground in Homs which is currently full), who knows… these are strange days where even the secret police don’t look so secret any more, they stand deliberately visible on every street corner, it feels like there are more police than people – a society made entirely out of security officers.

The rain hammers down again, maybe this will save some lives today I think to myself as I walk nervously past a group of large men with threatening looks in their eyes (jeez this place is making me paranoid). A friend tells me later that, “When they smash head’s open they really think they are doing good you know, they are not just here for the money… they believe the bullshit put out by the media, you know, they’re not just paid thugs”.

I watched some Syrian TV this week, it really is beyond a joke and reminded me how powerful television really can be – kids of 16 and younger making confessions about how they became caught up in this protest, how they were brainwashed by Islamists, the confessions are followed by an endless stream of images of apparently gunned-down soldiers supposedly killed by demonstrators, there is nothing on the news of the 100 or so soldiers found with gunshot wounds to the back of the head, executed (on the direct order of the presidents brother it is believed) by fellow soldiers for refusing to open fire on protesters, just a constant wall to wall stream of fear mongering reports about terrorists and Islamists trying to take over the country.

My dentist, a Ba’athist at heart, says Syrians don’t know who to believe any more, an educated woman she knows bullshit when she sees it, but equally she thinks the ‘free west’ is using wild propaganda against Syria.

An ongoing debate about the future of Syria erupted a couple of nights ago between Ali and his best friend from the Shia Ismaili sect who hates the current regime but fears, as many do, a future in the hands of the unknown, “We could be less free after your revolution” he accuses Ali in the fiery discussion, we must let Bashar try and implement his reforms.

The other day I saw a British journalist on TV he’d been caught in Homs and kicked out of the country; in an interview he repeated some interesting facts he’d heard – that Syria is a place where 15% of the population really hate the president and 20% really love him and in the middle is an undecided not so bothered middle class, and until the ‘undecided’ are mobilised there will be no revolution, but that 15% of the economy relies on tourism and people are really feeling the pain from its collapse and this could swing those middle classes to join the protests.

To add to this my own experience from talking to people is that since the killings of the demonstrators many of Bashar’s supporters have started to view their benign dictator as not so benign anymore and more like the sort of hard line dictator that this region has become known for; whatever happened to Bashar the reformer? 850 dead in just a few weeks, is it now too late to reform? The death toll in Syria far outweighs Yemen where the number stands at a mere 180 killed in a revolution that has been under way for far longer, can Syria survive the constant killing?

Last night I met a friend who says she cannot meet me again during the current crisis, she lives in one of the ‘hot areas’ where the army tanks have moved in in full force. I’d visited her home on my last trip before the unrest started, her father then seemed to be fully behind the president, now you can’t mention his name in the house, “My brother was beaten badly by the secret police and my neighbour was shot by the army but survived 2 bullets to the head” she whispered before heading off quickly into the night.

A day of rain

It was raining when we landed, I sailed straight through an eerily empty passport-control, but then a burly man caught my eye and asked me to put my bag through the x-ray machine for a second time, I could see him wondering why I was here, I obviously stood-out like a sore thumb; but with no big camera inside my bag just a small touristy looking one I was soon on my way and eating hummus and drinking Arak in my old seat with my oldest friend in Syria.

“It’s a different place” he said as we walked home casually greeting groups of plain-clothed cops, “These secret police guys stopped me last week at 3am and asked why I was wandering the streets at such a time” (3am street activity used to be normal here), we pass more plain clothed police, police cars are positioned on street corners, this certainly isn’t the same Syria I left just 4 months ago.

My friend at the hotel greets me, “Are you here for the trouble?” he asks, I smile “Why do you ask?”, I joke that I’m here to get away from the royal wedding, he tells me that the secret police have been making more visits than normal and asking too many questions.

“How long will you stay, where will you go?” “I don’t know” I say… OK OK, it is clear that he is uncomfortable with me staying here, later he confesses that as a friend he doesn’t want to speak against me to the secret police, and he doesn’t want trouble, he never talks about what is happening with Syrians, he wants to keep his nose clean. The hotel always used to be full, now I am one of only 5 guests, he gives me a double-room for the price of a single.

I awake late in the morning to the sound of thunder and hail, it sounds like gunfire, I remember that it is Friday, a proposed ‘day of rage’ in Syria, downstairs everyone watches the demonstrations on the hotel television – it is difficult to imagine that this is the same safe, stable, Syria I left just a few months back, now it seems 10 cities are taking part in the protests.

I join my friend again for morning coffee “Damascus is quiet due to the rain, but outside this sleepy city Syria is shaking” he says, “It is sitting delicately on the edge of an abyss, no-one knows the future, some don’t want to take the risk of change, but most do now” he says, as the rain thunders around us like gunfire.

Moving on

Fresh figs in crisp fresh flat bread make the perfect breakfast as I relax on my balcony overlooking the gorgeous valley in Safita. Afterwards I head out and sit with Adnan enjoying the thick Arabic coffee watching the small town life pass by, speaking very few words strangers sitting comfortably together, “You’re welcome anytime Mr. Sean” he says.

But today is my last time here and I cannot bring myself to tell him. Adnan was the first person to befriend me in Safita and looks after me as if was the Arabic son he never had. I had so hoped to be here for the opening of his hummus cafe but it wasn’t ready on Saturday and now he says it will be open later in the week. I tell him I have to leave for a dental appointment in Damascus. “You will be back for the opening Mr. Sean?”

In the back of my mind I hope I will but in my heart I know I must move on. I cannot see the film I want to make in sleepy Safita no matter how amazing the place and incredibly accepting the people.

Last night as I walked home I met a shop owner in a cafe “Sean come join us” he shouted. Soon I was surrounded by bottles of Arak and a wonderful array of mezza salads, 5 or 6 of his friends arrived and they all struggled with broken English discussing the usual topics of English football and Syrian girls, “Really you are an Arab man” the shop owner said as we joked. Around us a very modern Arab setting, Christian and Alawite, religious and social cohesion, it is impossible for me to tell who is what from how they look or from what they are drinking.

Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey bottles sit proudly on tables as families arrive into the early hours, I enjoy the ambiance and the sweet smell of apple tobacco in the air from the shisa pipes, it is very easy to feel at home with such wonderful unforced hospitality.

It was Michael whom I’d returned to see in Safita and who had been my English speaking guide for the last few days. He is a wonderful eccentric character; an Anglophile and a poet, his poem ‘I’m Fed Up’ laments of life in this Syrian town. He and his brother were the best students in the English department, “We are Europeans in our minds, our family is descended from Richard the Lion Heart”, he tells me proudly, “We were here fighting with the crusaders”.

Michael and his brother both dream of a life in the west and own much property and land in Safita, but Syrian law does not allow them to take money out of the country. So they stay here looking after their elderly mother, and dreaming of European brides.

As we talk in the street some taxi drivers stop to say something to Michael and his brother, “They are telling us to leave you alone, they think we are trying to get money from you.” We can talk in my hotel I tell them, “No” they say, “Here it is dangerous for us to go inside your place, people get suspicious and make reports to the secret police”. They both decide to leave.

Adnan is painting his new counter when I arrive for the last time, “Go inside Mr. Sean, it is too hot today”. He looks at me and asks if I had a rough night’s sleep, I feel paranoid, maybe he can smell the Arak on me, I feel distracted, torn, a mix of sadness and the usual apprehension I get when striding forward.

Moving on is never easy and one can never be sure it is the right thing to do. Looking for a story always involves learning about a place, a people, and making good friends, but saying goodbye never gets easier and I’m never sure if I will be back. Adnan makes the coffee, a man pops his head through the door asking for a job, Adnan tells him to come back in a couple of days, Adnan turns to me and says “Soon the shop will be finished Mr. Sean and we can eat hummus together”, I nod in agreement and smile sadly to myself.