Among the freedom fighters in Syria

An exclusive report from the frontlines of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown

Among the freedom fighters


Military trucks stood parked at the end of the dark, empty street. The electricity was cut, phone signals were out, apartment windows boarded with whatever materials residents could find—to stop the bullets, activists explained. A child’s voice rang out in the night on this recent Friday, shouting “Down with Bashar al-Assad,” again and again.

This was not Homs, Idlib, or any of those rural Syrian towns where rebellions and violent crackdowns have for months been in the eye of the world media. This was Duma, a suburban town just 10 km from the bustling capital city, Damascus, the heartland of support for Assad’s regime. And Duma is in lockdown. Every Friday—when protests traditionally take place after prayers—the town becomes gripped by military siege.

“Do you see the army?” muttered “Ali,” the activist beside me, risking his life to show me the situation in his home town. Disguised in local women’s dress, face covered by a black veil, I let him steer me in the dark. “You are my sister, and you are deaf and dumb,” he whispered in between soft prayers. We heard the clunk of the gun thudding against a soldier’s side as he turned to face us, less than two feet away. He stepped forward as if to stop us, then thought better of it.

Had my identity been uncovered, Ali, who, like all the activists in this article, used an assumed name for his own safety, would be imprisoned, probably tortured, possibly killed. The regime has imposed a ban on foreign journalists operating in Syria. But Ali is one of hundreds of activists in the country who focus on getting coverage of the situation onto the pages of foreign news outlets.

In Duma, central streets stood blocked by flaming barricades: piles of rubbish set on fire by locals to prevent the advance of military vehicles. Regime soldiers were positioned on the tops of the buildings, one eye closed, the other watching the movement below through the tracer point on their sniper rifle. The central avenues, the “kill zone” of the snipers, stood empty; scrawls on the walls—some scrubbed out, some written over—depicted a graffiti war. No message of support for Syria’s president had been allowed to stay, even as soldiers worked to scrub out the torrent of abuse against the regime.

Men huddled at the doorway of the mosque. Mustering courage, they leaped out, across the central avenue and into the relative safety of the backstreet alley opposite. Those who had made it encouraged the others, adrenalin high, shouting “Freedom” and “Down, down, down with the regime.” Residents flooded the side streets and mud paths that riddle the city, tauntingly out of the snipers’ range. Doors of homes were left ajar, an invitation of shelter to demonstrators if they needed routes of escape. Locals passed warnings to each other: “There are dogs in that street,” they said, referring to the army.

Because Duma is so close to the epicentre of the regime’s power base, security forces have responded with crackdowns to extinguish the opposition. Residents suspected of protesting are shown little mercy.

Sitting in their family home just one hour after they had been released, with phones turned off and placed in a different house should they somehow be traced, two 18-year-old twins told Maclean’s of their prison ordeal.

The boys had been captured on a summer’s day from their farmhouse, and taken to the political intelligence department in Damascus. They were suspects, interrogators had told them, because they had large speakers that could have been used at demonstrations. “We were wearing T-shirts, sitting in the sunshine, when they took us,” one said. “They said that we had been to protests. They kept us for two months—when we were released, still in our T-shirts, the weather was cold.”

Both boys spoke anonymously for their own protection. Sitting on foam mattresses, they were thin and pale, with bags under their eyes. Their scalps were covered in the uniform stubble that grows after heads have been shaved. The scar of a recent wound showed on one of the boys’ heads.

“We were kept in a tiny cell so full of people that everyone could only stand,” one said. “There were men aged between 50 and 70 years old. For four days we were not allowed to sleep. The cell was filthy, freezing, and the food was terrible. Prisoners got skin diseases that they left untreated.”

“The guards treated us like enemies,” the other boy added. “Sometimes, in a different cell, we were made to sit cross-legged with our backs straight. One man slouched, so they punished him by making him stand naked from six in the morning to 11 at night. A man had been imprisoned for trying to defend his wife when security forces raided his house and tried to touch her. They made him stand for 15 days continuously; they hanged him by the wrists. Every day he was made to eat his food with his face in the bowl on the floor, his hands tied behind his back.”

Humiliation tactics continued during the interrogations. In separate rooms, the boys were stripped naked and forced to sit on the cold concrete floor, their hands tied behind their backs, their eyes blindfolded. For hours they were questioned. “I never saw my torturer,” one said. “The voice asked about the protests, about names of protesters—they even wanted to know how many funerals of people killed in the protests we had been to.”

If the answer was not satisfactory—or sometimes just to “soften” them up—they were tortured. The boys were made to stand in a pool of water as their tormentors attached wires to their toes and riddled them with powerful electric shocks. “They sent shocks through me so many times that the voltage sent me flying across the room,” one brother said. Twice, the electric cables were attached to his toes, once to his chest, and sometimes on his penis, whispered one of the young men.

“They asked me about you, Bashar,” said one of the boys, addressing the journalist hosting the meeting for Maclean’s. “They seemed to know how you moved, what you do—I had so many electric shocks because of you!” Bashar questioned him on what he knew, what familiar faces he had seen inside the cells. Gathering information from released prisoners is the only way families get information on missing loved ones, he explained.

Though shocking, this story is a common one in Duma, and for the thousands of opposition figures detained across Syria. In Duma alone, a city of approximately 300,000, more than 1,800 people are imprisoned or have gone missing, a local female activist estimated. “Families report their losses to us, we collect the data,” she said. “This is the figure currently arrested,” she added with a wry smile, pointing out that nearly every family in the city has had at least one relative arrested during the uprising.

In the face of such statistics, and with mounting frustration that more than 11 months of demonstrations have failed to unseat the regime, a new form of opposition is growing. Down the street from where the protests roared on that Friday, five men stood peering from a nearby olive grove. Armed with rusty Kalashnikovs, they were a deployment from the opposition’s fledgling Free Syrian Army (FSA). “We are watching, waiting, in case the protesters need us to intervene,” said one man, a red kaffiyeh scarf hiding his identity. “We are here to protect them.”

The Damascus wing of the armed insurgency was formed in the countryside near the capital, explained the head of the battalion in an interview held at a secret base. Meeting him had required a two-hour journey involving fake safe houses, decoy cars and rigorous checks to ensure we were not followed. “We have high-ranking officers in the military who leak information about imminent attacks on Duma,” he said. “Then we launch pre-emptive strikes on the army. Activists call us if the army is attacking.” On Dec. 18, for example, his men blocked roads into the town to stop an expected crackdown on women activists. “This gave the activists time to escape. We fought hard, and lost 10 of our men.”

The commander estimated that he had 2,000 men spread across the Damascus suburbs, and some in the city centre. Severely limited by a lack of weapons, the group is not yet strong enough to pose a real threat. But more and more defectors are joining them, the commander said, and mounting small-scale attacks on military bases, including engaging guards of a central Damascus intelligence complex in nighttime gun battles. “We want to show them that if we can target the intelligence buildings, we can target the presidential palace,” said the commander. FSA brigades in other parts of the country have launched larger attacks—in Deraa, for example, 26 soldiers were killed last month.

But in a country operating on the fault lines of a fragile sectarian balance—Assad is a member of the minority Shia Alawite sect, while most of the protesters are Sunnis—many protesters fear that taking up arms could throw the country into a bloody civil war. “We can win this peacefully—we don’t want NATO to come to Syria, we don’t want people to take up weapons, we don’t want war,” said Hala, an activist with a Damascus-based opposition group called Freedom Days.

Committed to ousting the regime by peaceful means, but tired of the crackdowns on mass protests, dozens of opposition groups have launched a campaign of civil disobedience designed to bring the capital and outlying areas to a grinding halt. The plan, called “Karamah,” or “Dignity,” began in early December by encouraging boycotts in schools, and over the weeks escalated to ultimately paralyzing the civil service with strikes, and shutting down industry by blocking arterial roads to Damascus.

The restive suburbs reacted immediately. In Duma and nearby Qaboun, lines of shops stood shuttered. Teachers in some local schools sent flyers to the children’s homes announcing the strike. Outraged, Syrian soldiers and pro-regime militiamen forcibly prised store shutters open, or shot the locks. Others cracked down on the schools, arresting teachers and trashing classrooms, activists said.

With many employees too fearful to strike because of retribution by an iron-fisted regime, activists then pushed for “complete inactivity at work,” said Omar Khani of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a nationwide group that plays a vital role in coordinating different opposition movements. “It is dangerous for you not to go to work. So go to work, but don’t do a thing.”

Because it was too dangerous to campaign openly, the activists used imaginative ways to spread their message—among other things, painting the word “freedom” on 2,000 Ping- Pong balls and releasing them on a downward-sloping street in a Damascus suburb. Freedom Days also filled helium balloons with confetti, “freedom” emblazoned on the outside and on each paper strip. “We let them go close to soldiers in the city centre. They shot them down, and the freedom confetti scattered on the street,” recounted Hala.

The group also strung puppet imitations of Bashar al-Assad from bridges and, in a tactic used by activists in Libya, planted large speakers in the city centre, blasting out messages on a timer. “We once broadcast a speech from a garbage container,” laughed Juma. “You can sit and watch the chaos unfold as security officers run to stop it.”

“It is the donkeys we feel sorry for,” said Hala, recounting a time when soldiers reportedly shot 15 of the animals. They had been released onto the streets, the name “Bashar al-Assad” sprayed on their rumps.

In the effort to expand their support base, the groups target neighbourhoods that have not yet shown signs of opposition. Last week, they distributed 4,000 copies of a DVD in 10 parts of Damascus, said Hala. Seen by the Daily Telegraph, the disc was filled with pro-revolution videos, tutorials on peaceful direct action, and anti-Assad slogans. “Our message to Syrians is, if you don’t want to stay under this regime for years to come, then do as we say. Just follow these steps,” said Hala.

With the government already facing severe international sanctions, sustained industrial action could prove effective, say observers. But there remains a long way to go. “This is really new. It will take months before the plan has real impact,” acknowledged Hala.

For activists like Bashar and Ali, the prospect of living double lives, constantly on a knife edge between freedom and capture, is a frightening one. “Most people feel safe in their country but I feel terrified even in my own home,” said Ali. “Everybody gives what he can give in this revolution. Armed people can protect, peaceful people go out and chant.”

As we drove through checkpoints back into central Damascus,” he added: “My dream is to to be able to tell you my real name, and for you to visit us in freedom as a journalist, without this disguise.”

This story was reported by a correspondent whose name has been withheld for her safety.

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