Bashar al-Assad’s Syria: Where Fear and Beatings Stamp out Dissent
As the government steps up its deadly crackdown, Bookseller of Kabul author Asne Seierstad gives a rare inside look at protests.
He walks barefoot through the streets. The air is fresh with night, the sky at its darkest. He stretches his legs and inhales the scent of spring.
Some cars drive by, lighting up the sidewalk as they pass. Sand and gravel cover the soles of his swollen feet. His stomach pains are intense. His neck hurts. “This was just a holiday,” they told him. “Next time, it’s business.”
He arrives at a metal door in Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus, and presses the doorbell. A confused face appears in the door hatch, then bursts out: “So, they got you a new haircut!”
Abid is jostled into the apartment. The ones who were asleep come shuffling. The laughter, it seems, won’t stop. Abid is out of jail.
The engineering student is one of thousands who have been detained and imprisoned since the revolt in Syria started in March. People have been plucked away from schools and mosques, from public squares and streets. The authorities are quick to arrive on the sites of the protests. Men in civilian clothes, called the “ghosts,” are watching.
Surveillance dominates every aspect of life. The secret police—the Mukhabarat—is divided into an intricate system of departments and subdepartments; no part of society is left unexamined. A network of agents spans Syria. Some have tenure; others work part time. Who could be a better observer than the greengrocer by the mosque or the hospital night watchman? Who can better keep tabs on a family than the schoolteacher who asks what Daddy says about the man on the posters?
The man on the posters has pale, close-set eyes, is well groomed, and has a curiously long neck. On one variant he wears sunglasses and a uniform. On others, he looks like a banker. An ophthalmologist, he was reeled in at his father’s death to replace him as Syria’s dictator. His name is Bashar al-Assad. His deposition is the goal of the nascent upheaval.
One Friday Abid found the resolve to join a demonstration after prayers. He hardly saw they were surrounded before he felt a stinging pain on his neck. The electric shocks chased through his body. He fell, lost consciousness. When he awoke, several others were lying around him.
The Mukhabarat had appeared, in plain clothes, from nowhere. Now they dragged him, and a hundred others, to waiting white vans. The demonstrators were taken to the outskirts of Damascus.
“We sat in rows in a riad, a courtyard, surrounded by high walls. Our hands were tied behind our backs, and we were forced to kneel. I counted the prayer calls from the mosque to keep track of time. Our legs became numb. When told to stand up after the last call from the mosque, none of us could. I buckled over, was beaten, forced to stand, and fell again. At night, we were stuffed into a cell. We stood upright, 12 men, on a few square meters. Next morning we were taken out to the riad again. After three days we were tender, and the interrogations could start.”
Some were tortured for hours and came back bloodied. The one who suffered the most was an Alawite, a man belonging to the same Shia minority as the Assads, and considered a turncoat. Abid was more fortunate. “I am a member of the Baath Party. The beatings I received were not as harsh.”
Abid became a party member while growing up in Daraa, the city where the revolt began. Holding a membership is sometimes required to get into college, to get a job, or to rise in the power structures.
But Abid had had enough. With only one year left of his engineering studies, he risked it all in order to take part in the Syrian Spring. “It’s now or never. The train of freedom is leaving. We can jump on it, or we can let it go by.” A voice sounds from the far end of the sofa: “Listen to him. Two weeks in jail and he’s already Mandela!”
The authorities’ aim is obvious: to strangle the protests at birth. Not to do as in Cairo and wait until the squares get crowded. Whereas the gatherings in Tunisia and Egypt rapidly grew to number in the thousands, Syrian authorities mercilessly beat down on groups of 25, 50, or 100.
“Getting a thousand people out on the streets here is like getting a million people out in Cairo,” says Abid’s host.
His living room is about twice the size of Abid’s cell. Air is scarce. Everybody smokes, and cigarettes are lit with finished butts. It’s midnight. Outdoors, children are still in the streets. Some are traipsing around on their own, trash crackling beneath their feet. Others are half asleep on Daddy’s arm, on their way to bed. A couple of greengrocers are still open. A kebab skewer keeps rotating. Life goes on.
Syrian political life revolves around Bashar al-Assad. The real power figures are Bashar and his younger brother, Maher, commander in chief of the Republican Guard, an Alawite-dominated elite force, the only army allowed inside Damascus. Their father, Hafez al-Assad, the Air Force pilot who took power in 1970, is remembered as a shrewd politician. Belonging to the Alawite minority—merely 12 percent of the population—he built a power base of mainly his own clan. His son has lacked the experience to navigate in the national and regional political terrain and has lost some support.
Evening falls again. Alia hums as she concentrates on her penmanship. “When danger approaches,” a Syrian proverb goes, “sing to it.” Some girls gather around a desk in a high-rise apartment building. There are a pair of scissors, sheets of black paper, pencils, and a box of chalk on it. Alia makes an outline in pencil and fills it in with chalk. The Venetian blinds are drawn. You can never be too safe, even on the seventh floor with an open view.
The words gradually take shape beneath Alia’s purple-polished nails. “Stop the Killing.” On another poster, written from right to left: “Stop the Violence.” Discussion ensues on the spacing of the words on the third poster, but their message is clear. “Stop the Siege of the Children in Daraa.”
Daraa, a sleepy town in the desert on the Jordanian border, was where it all started. One afternoon in March, some boys wrote antigovernment graffiti on a wall. They were detained by the security forces and taken to the local police station. And then silence.
Their parents searched for them, asked around. Nobody knew. They went to the authorities and were sent packing. The local sheik joined the fathers at the office of the head of security in town.
“Give us our children back,” said the religious leader. He removed his headband—called an ogal—and placed it on the table, a symbolic gesture to indicate the importance of the request. If you ask for something, be prepared to give something in return, says the Quran.
“Forget your children. Go get new ones,” the head of security allegedly replied.
The sheik asked him to show mercy, for God’s sake.
“If you can’t make more children yourselves, send your wives and we will fix it,” the security boss is known to have said.
The disappeared children. The staggering insults. More and more people gathered around the building. They were turned away, but they came back.
A week passed before the children were released. They had been severely maltreated. Skin and flesh had been beaten off the knuckles of their hands. Some were said to have had their fingernails pulled out. YouTube videos of the kids were distributed on the Net. The protests spread to other cities.
Damascus remained an island of calm until the end of March, when spontaneous protests started occurring even there. There was no coordination, no defined leadership. The time and place for the demonstrations had to be transmitted from mouth to mouth, from friend to friend. And they had better be real friends.
The girlfriends on the seventh floor are planning the first women-only demonstration in central Damascus. The following Monday they will meet on one of the better streets in a Damascene shopping district. They will stay in stores until the strike of 3, when they will gather and roll out their banners. They will run when the police arrive. And they plan to vanish, like shadows, into the side streets.
Terrorists, Al Qaeda, and Israel are behind the revolt, according to Syrian media. A handful of men have confessed on state TV. “My mission was to make untruthful videos,” said one. “The money came from Saudi Arabia,” said another. “People are forced to go out and protest,” said a third.
The girls shake their heads at this. “I just want a good life,” says Alia. She works in a production company specializing in soap operas for the Palestinian market, and has a lot to lose. Her job. A boyfriend. Parties on the terraced roof. “You feel very small under this regime,” she says in halting French.
“Everything is from the government down. Until now, I’ve asked my friends to stay away from the protests. I’ve said, let’s wait a little. But the killings have changed people. Too much blood. We can’t just let them keep on.” Elias, the apartment’s only male inhabitant, shows remorse. “I’m full of fear,” he says. “I’ve never participated in any protest. I am not a brave man.”
Elias and Alia belong to religious minorities. He is Christian, she is Druze. “I’m afraid of what may come,” says Elias. “The regime has a good policy when it comes to minorities, keeps the country in balance. I’m afraid of Islam, afraid Syria will become a new Iraq.” The regime preys on this fear. It tries to convince Christian leaders, representing a 10th of the population, that Islamists may take over. Across the border, in Iraq, half the Christian population has fled persecution.
The chalk on the banners smudges; the writing becomes blurry. White writing is innocence; the black background, power. The idea was so nice. Alia blows off the excessive dust and adds more chalk.
One of the girls finds the solution. “Hair spray! We’ll fix it with hair spray!” The spray spreads out all over the room. Hair spray has never smelled more of revolution.
“I apply not my sword, where my lash suffices, nor my lash, where my tongue is enough” are the words of Muawiya, the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus. He was a master of hilm—grace and forbearance—and used force only when absolutely necessary. When he proclaimed himself caliph in 661 in opposition to Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, the split that divided Islam into Sunnis and Shias was a reality.
This Friday the Umayyad Mosque is stage to a modern drama. The mosque is the only legal gathering place, and still strictly monitored by the security forces. Every word from the imam’s mouth is noted.
The bazaar is empty. The stalls are closed. Iron shutters protect glass jars and baskets. A whiff of cardamom rests over the spice market. The leather craftsman has left behind a faint tang of hide, the soapmaker a trace of lavender. The tourists have gone; only the locals are left, small boys on bicycles, grandfathers on their chairs. Police units on motorcycles have closed off several streets. Some plan a protest after prayers.
The silence is oppressive. The area teems with Mukhabarat. Everyone knows who they are, even though they act like normal men. They squat on curbsides, lean against walls, sit on benches or together by doorways. They’re dressed in shirts and trousers, like other men. Though they might be more broad-shouldered than the average Syrian, and certainly have a stronger proclivity for leather jackets, the clothes aren’t what set them apart. It’s their glance.
They possess a way of looking that is inquisitive but not curious. It’s one-way; they want to take, not meet. Their conversation, or lack thereof, is the other giveaway.
Between most people there is at least a little chitchat. These men hardly talk, and when they do, they do it without facial expressions, without a jab in the side, a poke on the shoulder. They don’t talk like people really talk. They are on assignment.
As prayers are about to end, a cold wind trembles. The sky above the mosque darkens, splits, and rain starts hammering down. Water splashes on canopies that give way under the weight. A man tries to keep the water out of his entrance with a broom. Suddenly white frozen pearls drum on roofs and tarps, make the jasmine fall off the trees and drown in puddles. “God is great,” says a man who follows the hailstorm from his doorway. “I’ve never seen this in Damascus before. It is protection from God. People will stay calm. So they won’t get killed today,” he says with a sigh.
It’s as if the deserted street, shuttered stores, and everything that drowns in the storm emboldens the man. He talks about his brother, who narrowly avoided a government sniper last Friday. “It brushed by him here,” Tarek says, pointing to the side of his throat. The bullet peeled off the outermost layer of skin during a demonstration in Zamalka. Several people were killed.
The snipers shoot to kill. Not many, just enough to frighten. The orders are said to be no more than 20 a day, but many Fridays the numbers have been higher.
Like other Syrians, he talks about The Fear.
“It’s injected into us at birth,” he says softly, demonstrating an imaginary needle. “It makes us bow our heads, turn away, distrust each other. Everyone can be reported. If you happen to be rude to a policeman or he doesn’t like your face, you can disappear for years. Do you know when I’ve been most frightened? When I’ve seen the Assads on TV. I ordered my sons to sit and listen in reverence. You had to be careful around the children. But everything changed in March. I told my boys what is happening in our country. The oldest one came with me to the protest last week. But my 5-year-old daughter cried when I said Bashar had to go. ‘I love Bashar,’ she cried. The way we’ve taught her. ‘No, you should hate him,’ I explained. ‘But I love him,’ she sobbed.”
Tarek points to the poster above the door. “They came with him 10 days ago. ‘Paste him up,’ they ordered. I was afraid not to. This is my living, after all. Others pasted him up too. No wonder my daughter is confused.”
In the fashionable shopping district of Damascus the atmosphere is somber. Elegant, minimally clad mannequins view passersby with an arrogant mien. The cashiers stand listlessly with resigned expressions. There are no pictures of the president. The regime does not paste over the clean windows of the upper class. The poorer the district, the more posters.
Shirin paces the floor of her fashion store in tight jeans and flat suede Uggs. She had planned for a spring sale, but then came the bloodbath in Daraa. “Advertising while people are being killed felt wrong,” she says.
But the successful businesswoman has little sympathy for the protesters—“Some young rebels running around making trouble”—and supports Bashar al-Assad. “We have an excellent foreign policy. We are independent, and produce all we need, except for some spare parts for airplanes. The sanctions have taught us self-reliance. We don’t need foreign intervention, as in Libya. And what’s so wrong about Gaddafi? I always thought he made a lot of sense.”
But as a matriarch with three sons, she is upset about the arrests of the youngsters in Daraa. “The president should have ordered the hanging of the local chief of security,” she opines. “The way he treated the parents was a declaration of war. They’re Bedouins down there, divided into clans. I worry extremists will exploit the situation and wind people up.”
She sighs. “I really love this country. This is where I want to live. Live now.”
In a café downtown, Mouna takes a sip of her Barada beer. She has the burning eyes of a sleepless activist, staying every night in a different place. The Mukhabarat could have arrested her for her eyes only.
It all started with her leftist father, who barely avoided the purges of the 1970s. Mouna remembers his comrades’ white skin, having survived the jails of Hafez al-Assad.
After the demonstrations in Egypt, Mouna went home to her parents. “My father and I sat with our mint tea and talked for hours. He said: ‘It’s coming here! It’s spreading. It’s your turn now.’ ” She draws her breath and looks around. “I used the Internet, email and Facebook, like the Egyptians. Soon I began receiving threats. ‘We’re coming to get you,’ they say. When I ask who they are, they answer, ‘You know who’s talking.’ ”
Mouna gets annoyed at the next question. “We’ve grown up to believe there’s nothing to do about this society, and you already ask me who we want as a new leader. No candidate has materialized between March and April. What I want is to participate in society,” she says firmly.
She disconnects her cell phone from its charger when it starts chiming. It’s a dying phone and needs charging three times a day. Mouna’s slight body begins to shake. She holds her phone in one hand and clasps her hair with the other.
She stares into the air. “I have to go,” she says. “My friend has been arrested. The secret police came to his home.”
The next day, there are more girls than usual on a specific Damascene shopping street. They walk in pairs. To those in the know, discerning who is there on an assignment is not difficult. They look around nervously. They keep tossing their heads. They have flat-soled shoes. Like the men outside the mosque, they talk without facial expressions. One pair here, another one there. Three. Four. A small gathering. A larger one.
Suddenly, they open their purses and hold up their banners. Some written on cloth, some on paper. Each woman has her slogan.
Stop the Killing. Stop the Violence.
They start walking silently to the square with the looming bronze statue of Hafez al-Assad. None of the bystanders says a word. They pay attention, in disbelief. The girls cross the roundabout to get to the statue. A minute passes. Two. Maybe three. They are surrounded. White vans and scores of men in plain clothes pop up from nowhere. They tear posters out of the girls’ hands, throw the women to the ground. “Whores,” the men shout. “Cows!” Some lie on the ground. One refuses to release her poster and screams as her finger is broken.
But most have fled. They disappeared over the square, into the side alleys. Every girl for herself. As they had planned. It’s all over in a matter of minutes. A white van drives away with four of the girls. The other vehicles depart from the scene.
The square appears as if nothing has happened. But something has happened. Something has begun.
Seierstad is the author of The Bookseller of Kabul and, most recently, The Angel of Grozny: Life Inside Chechnya.