Report from Damascus: «Normal life is a dream», 15. Mai 2012

The situation in Damascus is difficult to assess from the outside. A Syrian journalist from Damascus, one strongly opposed to Assad, has sent this report. He answers questions asked by friends. The article has also been published in «Soukmagazine». The author’s name remains anonymous. He is personally known to me.

What is it currently like to live in Damascus? How would you describe the situation?

Although Damascus—here referring to the city center, an area about 4 km in diameter—is one of the few remaining safe cities in Syria, its inhabitants live in a constant state of fear. We are always anticipating the worst. No matter how much one tries to live like an ostrich with one’s head in the sand, the attempt to live a normal life is impossible.

Secret policeman are everywhere, wearing civilian clothes and armed with machine guns. One finds them in the public square, in the market, pretty much in every public space. They are always on the look out for any suspicious movement. The sounds of gunshot and exploding shells can be heard throughout the night and even sometimes during the day. Mostly this comes from the nearby suburbs, many of which are heavily contested areas. One constantly hears terrible stories about what is going on in other cities and even in the suburbs. Rumors of kidnappings and people being held for ransom abound. The possibility of living a “normal” life is little more than a dream.

Check points at the entrances—and on the weekend, even in the city’s interior—along with the blockading of main roads in areas inhabited by VIP persons or adjacent to security centers means heavy congestion and driving times double the norm. Yet no one dares to complain (except perhaps to trusted individuals behind closed doors). Most government buildings are surrounded by ugly and hideous cement barricades, with armed soldiers behind them.

The financial situation in Damascus is catastrophic. Since last year, prices have doubled and even tripled, while some basic goods are almost completely unavailable. People devote most of their time to looking for such goods. Particularly notable in this respect is diesel, the main souse of heating, which has become nearly impossible to find. If one is lucky, one might be able to obtain it on the black market, at double the normal price. With the decline of the lira’s value relative to the U.S. dollar, most people have begun hoarding the latter. Keeping track of the price of gold and the value of the dollar has become a daily obsession, not only for businessmen, but for the average Syrian as well, inasmuch as the prices of goods are pegged on the dollar.

We Syrians miss living a normal life. Every other day, one wakes up to learn that a relative, friend, neighbor, acquaintances or colleague has been detained by the secret police. His family does not know where he is, how he is doing. There is no way to gather any information about him. At the same time, one constantly hears stories about the inhuman conditions to which they are likely exposed, the physical abuse and insults to which they are almost certainly subjected.

Wealthy people, those with money, as well as foreign nationals began fleeing the country some time ago. Added to that, during the last several decades, many Damascene families began moving to the suburbs because of the rise in housing and real estate prices. Now, finding themselves in the eye of the storm, many have fled back to the city center, to liver with parents, brothers and in-laws. It is very common now to find three or more families living together in one three-room house.

In sum, our lives are full of anxiety and endless worry, about how to satisfy essential needs, about how to deal with the incredibly high prices of even basic goods, about our security and about our future. We feel isolated and cut off from the rest of the world; the internet is blocked, and FB and e-mail accounts are tracked and trailed. We live in constant fear of losing loved ones.

How does the situation affect the daily routine of oneself and one’s friends?

As little as a year ago, I would often hang out late in restaurants and coffee shops in Old Damascus, or go to Qasuon Mountain to hang out with friends in the old city there. We would go out to eat and then walk around visiting one another. Sometimes I would go with a friend, even twice a week, to our farm or summer home in the mountains outside Damascus. I can no longer do these things, for financial reasons as well as a concern about my security.

In any event, there is now an absence of any desire for entertainment or leisure. One cannot enjoy life while people are walking around missing and mourning loved ones, or walking around homeless. The streets of Old Damascus near the clock tower, which used to be packed and crowded with young people, are now empty. Shops close early and people whisper in hushed tones, afraid to be overheard by security.

As an activist, I dedicate most of my time (particularly given that my job and the family business have both more or less grounded to a halt) to collecting for charity, and assisting people who are fleeing from besieged cities such as Homs and Idlib, or from Damascus’ suburbs. All this must be done in secret. It would be a disaster if I were caught providing aid to those fleeing besieged cities. Providing refugees medical assistance and food is more dangerous than taking part in a demonstration. The government does not acknowledge the existence of besieged cities. It does not want people to know what they are going through. I try to help individuals from these cities, and to learn their stories.

I have spent the past ten years traveling, despite the bad financial situation, which, among other things, has resulted in a decline in the value of Syria’s currency. The fact that most western embassies in Damascus have shut down has made travel that much more difficult. Added to that, the government recently enacted a new law requiring a travel permit. Every man between 18 and 40 years of age is unable to leave before obtaining a special travel permit from the Ministry of Defense. Basically, I am unable to leave the country without seeking a permit from some stupid, illiterate officer. This makes me feel like a prisoner, or captive.

Added to that, the Internet in Syria is completely controlled by the regime. Among other things, they have managed to slow down the connection. This makes it difficult to even check one’s e-mail. During the weekend, there is no connection at all. The result is that one feels completely isolated from the rest of the world. Despite the difficulty accessing it, I spend more and more time surfing the Internet in order to escape this prison the regime is building around us. I feel free when I’m online—the virtual world is the opposite of the world the regime is trying to force upon us.

Since the start of the revolution, I’ve become strongly attached to the Internet, primarily as I hope to use it to let the outside world know about the Syrian people’s suffering. I speak English and have friends all over the world, so I feel it is my duty to inform the outside world about what is going on in Syria. In this, I am in a struggle with the regime. As in the past, as part of its effort to maintain power, the regime tries to kill people in such a way that those outside of Syria should not know it. I can’t stop the regime from killing, but I can break the silence and let the world know about it. Consequently, I am always on facebook and twitter, doing my best to take advantage of the information revolution in order to help the Syrian one.

How do government troops deal with the demonstrations?

First of all, one should understand that the terms ‘government’ and ‘troops’ are misleading in the Syrian case. The ‘government,’ whether speaking of the Prime Minister or Cabinet, plays no meaningful role in running the country. They take their orders from their master and president, Basher Assad. Indeed, the country is run by the Assad family, not only by Basher, but also his brother Maher, his mother and his uncle. The Syrian ‘troops’ responsible for dealing with demonstrators are really security forces and members of the fourth unit of the army, which consists entirely of loyalist soldiers mainly belonging to the Alawite sect.

The regime and the media that it controls never even acknowledge that peaceful demonstrations are taking place. Demonstrators are referred to as ‘armed gangs,’ ‘infiltrators’ or ‘sneakers.’ In one speech, Basher Assad referred to them as germs! Of course, the only way to deal with ‘germs’ is to finish them off—that is, to kill them. They are evil people, traitors paid by the Gulf States and the West to weaken Syria, which of course “must stand firm against Israel.”

It is a life of or death matter for the regime. The demonstrators dare to speak up, to challenge the regime’s iron grip. Consequently, they must die. Of course, how the regime actually deals with demonstrators depends in large part on where the demonstrations take place. The regime tends to be less harsh in the capital because of the presence of foreign diplomats. On the one hand, the capital constitutes something a red line, meaning that the regime can ill afford to tolerate demonstrations there. At the same time, it considers it imperative that the capital appear calm. The regime wants it to appear normal to the outside world. Thus, security forces only rarely fire on demonstrators directly. Instead, they fire into the air in order to frighten them. Later they detain and torture them.

Thugs, security policemen, collaborators and informers are situated wherever seditious activity is suspected. Snipers are places on the tops of public buildings and potential sites of demonstrations, such as mosques, universities and graveyards. In addition, there exist 14 security centers scattered around Damascus. Once word comes of a demonstration, thugs and security men rush to the location armed with sticks and guns. The begin shooting into the air, beating up demonstrators, and pulling them into buses that then take them to one of the security centers, where they are severely tortured and interrogated. If one is found guilty of having only ‘participated’ in a demonstration, he will spend between a week and two months in detention, and receive a moderate amount of torture, before being released and forced to sign a paper declaring his culpability and promising not to participate in any future demonstrations. If an ‘organizer’ is caught and captured, he will be severely tortured to death (though if a sniper catches him in the actual act of directing demonstrators, he will shoot him dead immediately). If somehow he survives, he can expect 3-4 months of detention and a lifetime as a seriously injured individual.

What is it we expect from the international community, Europe and the Arab governments?

It is common knowledge that this brutal, dictatorial regime could not have survived all these years if it hadn’t been for the direct and indirect support it enjoys from the international community. The pretext for dealing with such a regime has been that regime change is something only the Syrian people can carry out; as long as the Syrian people do not show any will for change, no one can act on their behalf. Well, the Syrian people are now rising up to demand their freedom and salvation from this brutal regime.

Authoritarian regimes such as Iran, Russia and China continue to provide endless support to the regime. They provide financial and military aid, as well as Internet and communication based technology that allows the regime to censor and spy on bloggers and activists. Conversely, the Syrian dissidents receive no assistance whatsoever. Consequently, the terms of engagement are completely unbalanced—normal people armed only with banners and sharp-throated chants of “freedom” against tanks, aircraft, soldiers, secret police and an unlimited budget. We demand that the international community give our uprising the means to survive and achieve our goals.

We are not calling for military intervention. We do, however, want the international community to put some real pressure on the regime. Until now, we are fully convinced that the regime has not faced any real pressure, pressure that would force it to allow peaceful demonstrations, to allow people to take to the streets without fear of being shot or detained. We want medical supplies and food for besieged cities. We believe that we can change the regime on our own if allowed to demonstrate without fear of being killed and if the international community were to provide medical assistance and food.

The international community should unite and send a clear message to the regime that it cannot continue killing its own people while the whole world is watching. Sadly, the only message the international community is currently sending the Syrian people is one of its intentions to not interfere. It regrets the killings and human rights violations taking place in Syria, but has no intention of doing anything about it. Moreover, it has made quite clear that there will be no military intervention, a message received quite favorably by the regime. In effect, the international community has given the regime a green light to kill and keep killing without the fear of ever having to face up to its crimes. We want tangible, practical support to help us sustain the uprising. W are tired of conferences, speeches and condemnations.

What is the role of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA?

I should first explain what the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, is. The FSA was formed by group of regular soldiers who defected from the government army. They refused to carry out their commanders’ orders to open fire on peaceful demonstrators. The FSA was formed about five months after the demonstrations began. At the beginning, government soldiers were not very clear as to what was going on in Syria. With time, however, they gained a better understanding of what was transpiring, and some were not happy concerning the role being assigned them. The survival of such a brutal regime depends entirely on the loyalty of the army and security police. It has survived these past 40 years because of the iron grip of the army and security police. The regime has shown no mercy in dealing with those who refuse or hesitate to carry out orders, as they fear that such leniency—particularly when the order is to kill—would result in the rapid collapse of the army, and consequently, the regime. Correspondingly, the very first soldier who disobeyed the order to open fire on demonstrators was immediately shot.

Soldiers were confronted with having to choose from two bad choices—either to carry out the order to shoot on demonstrators, or to disobey the order and face immediate execution. Some soldiers thus attempted a third option—to defect from the army. The first to do this simply abandoned their arms and ran away, taking refuge in neighboring countries, primarily Turkey and Jordan. Learning from their families about the horrible actions carried out by the army and the regime’s thugs, other soldiers decided to defect with their arms and to form a Free Syrian Army. The objective of the FSA is to protect peaceful demonstrators. People in the targeted cities have given shelter to soldiers wishing to defect. They provide them with places to hide and also with arms. The arms have been simple enough to obtain, either via smuggling across the Lebanese border, or purchase from corrupt regular army soldiers. The latter sell them at a high price to FSA soldiers via local residents, and then later claim to have lost them.

Currently, the FSA consists of separate units, operating in almost all Syrian cities. Each unit consists in part of young men originally belonging to the city in which it operates. They thus know the city and its surroundings well. Additionally, most have already finished their obligatory military service and have some military knowledge. Other unit members come from other cities; stationed in the region where they ended up defecting, they now hope to defend innocent demonstrators instead of shooting them. They surround demonstrations and clear the streets in the adjacent areas so as to ensure that there are no snipers or troops. The FSA also targets the buses carrying thugs and security men to the demonstrations. In some cases, they also target informers who provide the regime with information about activists, on the basis of which they are often detained. They also target the more notorious officers of the security services. The FSA’s role is completely defensive, their aim being to compensate for the imbalance in the people’s struggle against the regime, where the former have nothing to fight with but primitive arms and basic human capabilities. It would also be responsible in the post-regime era for the country’s security, thus hopefully preventing chaos.

Editing: Erik Freas

Kategorie: Worte | Tags: ,



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