Damascus by Night
Those who still travel to Damascus are surprised at how normal everyday life in the Syrian capital seems. Given the lively downtown area with its pulsating bazaars, it seems almost unreal that observers from the Arab League are in the city investigating brutal human rights violations.
Nevertheless, something has changed: people in cafés and taxis are talking about politics. They may not be doing so in loud, clear voices, but they are not whispering any more either. In the suburbs, demonstrations are being held every evening and protesters are dying every day. The uprising is moving closer to the capital.
I get a call to tell me that there will be a "party" in the district of Harista that evening. I am picked up by activists and driven to a so-called "safe house". Five young men are waiting for us in a living room that is illuminated by bright neon lamps. The curtains are drawn; the air is heavy with cigarette smoke.
An older man enters and is greeted respectfully by the others. Ahmad S.* is one of the leaders of the protests in Harista, a suburb of Damascus, where unemployment and humiliation at the hands of the security forces are driving the people onto the streets.
I ask what they expect from the Arab League observers. "What can we expect?" answers Ahmad S. "Should the mission not stop its work immediately as soon as another bullet is fired? Every day, 20, 30, 40 people lose their lives. The regime only signed the agreement to buy time."
Shooting at women and children
A young army deserter serves tea. Some only leave the flat to attend the demonstrations that take place every evening; others don't set foot outside for days. They haven't seen their families in months and change location once every few weeks.
The television is switched to Orient News, an opposition channel that broadcasts from Dubai. It shows the brutality of the regime in all its horror. The footage is horrendous, filmed with mobile phone cameras: bones breaking beneath the boots of members of the security forces; backs covered in whip marks, children lying in pools of blood.
When I ask whether the revolution can continue to remain peaceful, the men smile. Nobody wants violence and the revolution has indeed remained peaceful for a long time, one of them tells me. "But the regime is killing our people. They are shooting at women and children."
The rebels have no money to put up resistance and buy weapons. Ahmad S. takes an old Mauser revolver out of the drawer beneath the television. "How are we supposed to defend ourselves with that?" he asks. He slides a bullet into the barrel of the revolver, spins it and laughs. "At best, you could use this for Russian roulette."
We wait for a call from a driver who is supposed to be driving us to the demonstration in Harista. The army deserter looks out the window. Ahmad S. reprimands him. Does he not understand, asks Ahmad S., that the curtains have to stay closed as long as it is dark outside and the light in the room is switched on? At last, the telephone call comes through. Ahmad S. jumps up; a small, white car is waiting for us. Ahmad S. and the driver exchange news: who has been arrested today? Has anyone been killed?
The driver knows exactly what route to take. He avoids military checkpoints, driving instead under abandoned bridges, through tunnels flooded with water, across dark paths across fields.
A crowd of people has already set out from the Central Square in Harista. Everywhere we look, there are armed men from the revolutionary Free Syrian Army. Although an increasing number of rebels are trying to smuggle weapons into the country, the men of the Free Syrian Army, deserters from the regular Syrian army, have until now been the only ones who have been armed right from the start and who know how to handle weapons.
"The Syrian people are one"
I am the only woman and am instructed to stay close to my minders. If the demonstrators think that I am an informer, I could be beaten up. A young man leads the procession. Carried on the shoulders of others, he sings into a megaphone: "Down with Bashar now! The gift the Arab League gives us is slow death!"
The procession stops in front of the church of the small Christian community in Harista. The singer calls out: "Listen, Christians, listen! We wish you a holy Christmas. The Syrian people are one – regardless of whether we are Muslims or Christians. We are one! We are one!"
Up until now, the Syrian churches have officially supported the regime for fear of the Islamic parties that might replace it. Nevertheless, there are numerous Christians in the opposition. My minders explain to me that it is important to take away their fear. "For decades, the regime has been telling them over and over that only the regime can protect minorities. In reality, it is playing the religious denominations off against each other and is doing everything to divide the people."
The party is over
No sooner has the procession set off again, a shot rings out. The crowd scatters in all directions. We are swept along by the crowd and hide behind a car. More shots are fired. My minders pull me into a shoe shop. The shutters are immediately pulled down.
"What size shoe are you looking for?" asks the salesman, his voice dripping with irony. He offers us water to calm us down. There is a deathly silence on the streets. Behind the shutters, the lights are on. Ten minutes later, one of the minders receives a call from Ahmad S. Three demonstrators have been hit by bullets and have sustained injuries; six or seven have been arrested. The party is over.
It is vital that we leave the district; the security forces are already swarming around the streets. Another car is waiting for us in a side street. A member of the Free Syrian Army clears a small barricade out of our way. The barricade consists of nothing more than an old armchair and a traffic sign. He shows us the way and then quickly disappears in the other direction. A man gets into our car and invites us to take tea with him at his home. Mohammad U. is leader of the local coordination committee in Harista.
When we enter his flat there is a power cut. "This is the punishment for rebellious districts," he says. Since the start of the protests, the electricity has been shut off for hours at a time, the telephone lines switched off and the Internet blocked.
In the dark living room, his young daughter holds a torch over my notebook so that I can write. His 16-year-old son tells me about the time the security forces came to his school, arrested the headmaster and slapped a woman teacher in the face. They burned one pupil's hand on an oven to get him to admit that he had taken part in a demonstration. Muhammad U. himself spent a week in prison because of his father's activities.
All of his brothers are in prison. "If a regime is really interested in dialogue and clarification, does it arrest and torture innocent members of a family and shoot at peaceful demonstrators when observers are in the country?" he asks.
Wanted, dead or alive
The next day, we receive the news that a member of the Free Syrian Army is being buried in Duma, a suburb of Damascus. We decide to attend the funeral. Suleiman A., an activist from Duma, picks me up and gives me instructions. "They are looking for me, dead or alive. If we are stopped, I am the only one who will do the talking." I put on a headscarf. In Duma, a particularly conservative district, the women wear veils over their faces.
Suleiman A. owns a leather factory and was a preacher until he was removed from office in 2005 for speaking about democracy in the mosque. I ask him when he joined the revolution. He tells me that he joined right at the start, on the 15th. "So right at the start of the Syrian uprising in March?" I ask. "No," he laughs," on 15 December, at the start of the Tunisian revolution."
He goes on to say that he understood immediately that the democratic movement would not stop at Syria's borders. So he closed his factory and went underground. His wife sells some of her gold jewellery from time to time to keep the family going.
Duma has twice as many inhabitants as Harista. Although the inhabitants of Duma are not poor, the underdevelopment and the fact that the district has been neglected by the state are clear to see. We drive through illegal settlements, where most of the protests take place. The atmosphere at the funeral is grim. Shortly after our arrival, the young men get into position for the funeral procession. "The people demand a call for jihad!" they shout.
Suleiman A. senses what I am thinking. "We don't want an Islamic caliphate. But the situation in Duma is much worse than in Harista. Here, people die every day. And this is not only a demonstration; it is also a funeral."
The regime has been afraid of funeral processions since the start of the uprising. Now, dozens of documents have to be obtained for funerals from the security forces. Officially, only four men are allowed to accompany the corpse. "Isn't that strange?" says Suleiman A. "We are burying a martyr, who was shot dead at the funeral of a martyr, who himself was shot dead at a funeral."
Observers who are being observed
My clumsily fastened headscarf gives me away; the people know at a glance that I am not from Duma. We are quickly surrounded by a group of men. The father of the deceased tells me how his son was abducted by members of the security forces and how his lifeless body was dumped in front of the house. A wound across his torso had been sewn together.
One man pulls up his sleeve; another shows me his shoulder. There are burn marks caused by electric shocks and the marks left by cigarettes extinguished on the skin. Shots ring out; once again, we run for cover. The men run after me, calling "Don't forget! Write everything down! The observers don't come to us. You have to write it all down!"
Night has fallen again. My minder wants to drive me back to Damascus. It is too dangerous to stay in Duma, he tells me. On the way back, he tries to talk me into going to the hotel where the Arab League observers are staying and to convince them to listen to the activists from Duma.
The Arab League has only provided one telephone number, he says, and the line is always engaged. I tell him that the hotel will undoubtedly be watched by members of the security forces who are armed to the teeth. He sighs and laughs. "Observers who are being observed. What good does that do us?"
Layla Haj Yahya
© Tagesspiegel 2011
* Names have been changed to protect the people involved
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de