Whispering against fear

2011-06-25 16:11

Albeit in whispers, people in ­Damascus, Syria, are starting to talk politics. President Bashar al-Assad has ruled the country using the same tactic his father employed for three decades: fear.

Syrians who openly express dissenting views of the one-party state have found themselves in prison. After months of unyielding anti-regime protests the situation has become, as one Syrian journalist told me, “too big to ignore”. But it took some time.

Arriving in Damascus it felt like Assad’s Orwellian approach and two months of violent crackdown were working.

Rainwater slid down the dirty walls of the crumbling houses of Old Damascus. A hunched old man tottered towards me, his eyes downcast. When he finally looked up he did a double-take, unused to seeing foreigners.

“What are you doing out?” he asked brusquely. I said I was sightseeing in the Old City. “But it’s a Friday,” he said. “Don’t leave the Old City – and be careful.”

His warnings were based on a widespread concern in Damascus: if you are out on a Friday you might be arrested on suspicion of heading to a demonstration.

Traditionally, Fridays – when Muslims congregate to pray – have become the day when the largest and bloodiest protests are staged. A little distance from the Old City, a protest was in full swing but to have gone there would have been senseless. Foreign journalists are barred from Syria and those who are caught sneaking in and attending ­demonstrations are either expelled or, worse, disappear for weeks and are released with stories of shattered jawbones and electrocutions.

This Friday the only people outside seemed to be the secret police, or Mukhabarat. In threes, they sheltered under shop awnings, smoking and drinking tea. Sitting snug in faded brown and black leather coats. One group glared as I walked by. Damascus residents say the number of ­secret police on the street has ­tripled since March. Their conspicuousness is deliberate – the government wants people to know they are ­being watched.

With hundreds dead it seemed that Syrians had been scared back into their homes. In Damascus, a hub for Assad loyalists, it was said that anti-regime protests had ­fallen in number.

The government labelled May 13 as Jumi’a al-Khalas, the Finishing Friday, and the feeling was that it would mark the end of the demonstrations. But in reality they were only just beginning.

Over the next six weeks protests exploded across the country. Fear had twisted into anger and horrific accounts of police brutality filtered into Damascus.

A doctor working at a military hospital in Damascus agreed to meet me on condition that we locked all the windows and doors to prevent anybody from listening in. He wanted to talk about a massacre in Daraa, near the border with Jordan, where human rights groups said some of the worst atrocities had been committed.

“After one particularly bloody Friday a military truck brought 80 dead civilians to the hospital,” the doctor said. “The military wanted to keep the bodies in the morgue and return them one by one, village by village, over a few weeks to prevent a potentially massive demonstration if all ­bodies were returned on the same day.”

The doctor spoke of soldiers in Daraa who had defected.

“I was working in the emergency room late one night and some soldiers were brought in with ­gunshot wounds to the back. They were crying out: ‘The Shabiha (pro-government militia) shot us when we refused to fire on ­protesters’.”

The doctor and I staggered our exits from the building. That evening I received calls on my ­mobile only to hear nothing but a quiet hum on the other end. It was time to leave.

Assad’s tactics had worked on me – I was a paranoid wreck. I burnt my notes and made a dash for the Lebanese border.

Once safely in Lebanon the bus curved down the mountain road and the Mediterranean came into sight. Sitting next to me a Syrian man who had been singing ­Assad’s praises for the entire journey suddenly changed his tone, free from self-censorship.

“We have a saying for people like Assad,” he said: ‘If not me, tsunami’. If Assad realises that all Syrians want him to go he won’t leave. He’ll kill the entire country first.”

– The Telegraph

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