Inside Syria: Secret police tell parents of arrested protesters to forget their children and have some more

Published in The Mail on Sunday (April 17th, 2011)

Khalid was not a political activist, just an ordinary middle-class man inspired by the tide of change sweeping across the Arab world. Three weeks ago he joined a group that met at a Damascus mosque and protested against their government. Speakers stressed they had no weapons and hundreds chanted: ‘Peacefully, peacefully, we want freedom peacefully.’

The response was immediate and vicious. Secret police attacked the men and women daring to defy a repressive regime that has ruled with fear for 40 years. But, in an astonishing turn of events, the watching crowd turned on the loathed security forces and beat back their oppressors. Soon, however, reinforcements were called and cracked down hard, hauling dozens of people off to police cells.

Among them was Khalid. His family despaired, knowing what happens in these suburban torture chambers. His mother toured police stations for information on his whereabouts but abandoned her quest after a volley of aggressive abuse. She feared she might never see her son again.

Six days later, Khalid turned up. He had been dumped in a back street with about 50 fellow protesters. Like the others he had been hideously beaten. His battered body was even covered with bite marks left by his captors. He will not protest again but his brother is furious.

‘We are not political people, but politics has come into our house,’ he told me.

This demonstration was just one of scores that have erupted across Syria, leaving 200 people dead, hundreds missing and the nation tremulous. In January, President Bashar Assad boasted he had no cause for concern over the popular protests in the Arab world as his dynastic dictatorship reflected ‘the beliefs of the people’. Most observers shared his confidence, if not his disingenuous diagnosis.

Now Syrians debate if the regime will survive and diplomats watch nervously. For this explosion of anger not only has the potential to rip apart Syria – it could shake the entire region, given the country’s pivotal role in events from Israel and Lebanon to Iraq, Iran and even Turkey.

Part of the regime’s survival strategy is to keep out foreign journalists. Agency reporters have been expelled, bloggers detained. Snippets of information leak out through furtive phone calls, Facebook and Twitter, revealing a partial picture of a regime trying to repress dissent with increasing desperation.

Last week, however, I spent five days in Damascus and the south of the country where the protests began, talking to political activists, students and ordinary families. Some were too scared to discuss politics; others could not stop.

On the surface, everything was normal. The sun shone, tourists trod the ancient streets of Damascus and shoppers were out buying food and spices in the famous covered souk.

Syria is a secular state, so men drank beer in a park near my hotel while women in tight jeans held hands with their boyfriends. Everywhere, people were friendly and welcoming.

There were, however, many new banners in the streets bearing the nerdish features of Assad, the one-time London eye doctor who became a dictator. Cars and shops brandished new pictures of their leader. And an air of paranoia hung over the city.

Before talking to me, one woman put her mobile phone in her hand¬bag then zipped it up in case it was bugged by security forces. Another person said he placed his by the television with the volume turned up when discussing ‘the situation’ at home. A third only used news websites in internet cafes, and never for more than ten minutes, to avoid detection.

Several people inadvertently dropped their voices to a whisper whenever they mentioned their president by name, even in their own homes.

‘I’ve felt scared all my life,’ said one young woman. ‘My father told me from a very early age to remember that walls have ears. Isn’t it terrible children must be told such things?’

There is good cause for such caution. These smart, savvy people all knew others who had been jailed or beaten in recent weeks.

‘A couple of my friends were arrested,’ said one. ‘The wife was beaten up then released. Now her mother wants her to leave the country and go to Dubai, but she won’t leave until her husband is released.’

Another told of a friend last seen covered in blood as he was dragged off by security forces during a protest. ‘His mother is frantic – she just wants to know if he’s alive after two weeks of hearing nothing.’

Few venture out late in a city renowned for its bustling nightlife, given the oppressive mood and prowling gangs of secret police.

‘I looked at one list of arrests and there were seven people taken in for having a conversation in a cafe,’ said one person. ‘This is why we stay in with our families or close friends.’

So what is going on in a nation for so long seen as an island of stability? Just as in Tunisia, when the self-immolation of a fruit seller sparked a fire that swept North Africa, it all began in unexpected circumstances in a most unlikely place.

On March 6, 15 teenagers were arrested for scrawling graffiti in Deraa, a nondescript farming town near the Jordanian border. They had written on a wall, ‘The people want the regime to fall’ – the mantra of the Arab spring. Their parents, accompanied by a local religious leader, went to the police to plead for their release, but were told to forget about their children.

‘Go away and have some more’ was the advice.

When this provoked huge demonstrations in front of the city’s mosque, the local police chief – who happened to be the president’s thuggish cousin – ordered his forces to open fire. Five people were killed, starting a chain reaction that has led to dozens of deaths in Deraa and an uprising across Syria.

The regime initially tried a combination of concessions and repression to stop the protests. The police chief and an unpopular local governor were sacked and detainees released, but this failed to quell anger in an area where tribal concepts of honour run deep.

When some of the arrested teenagers were freed they had been tortured, with faces smashed up, burns on their bodies and fingernails pulled out.

Eight days ago, security forces killed at least 28 demonstrators in Deraa and two other cities, the highest death toll yet on a single day. Deraa is sealed off, but driving nearby the following day I saw army trucks heading towards it laden with coils of razor wire.

One activist said local elders were still trying to keep things calm, but if any of the missing teenagers turned up dead ‘the guns will come out’.

Protests have taken place mostly on Fridays after prayers at mosques as it is the one time police cannot stop crowds gathering – although in Damascus, security forces inside the main mosque showed guns in their belts as a warning.

Last week was different, despite a chilling warning on television that there was ‘no more room for leniency’. A slew of stories indicated unrest was spreading and the regime’s iron grip loosening.

On Sunday morning, word spread that communications and power supplies to the port of Banias had been shut down. As the day wore on, four people were shot dead and there were rumours a nasty smuggling gang linked to the regime had been let loose on protesters. Nine soldiers were killed in a roadside ambush nearby.

On Tuesday, armed men turned machine guns on a village near Banias. Science students at Damascus University marched and there were claims that soldiers who refused to fire on protesters were themselves shot. Wednesday saw the first demonstrations in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, while mothers of arrested men blocked a major highway.

Then on Friday there were more big protests, especially in Damascus where tear gas was fired after tens of thousands tried to march on the city centre and tore down posters of Assad.

There are reports of bodies being withheld from families unless they agree to keep silent; of security forces preventing injured people receiving treatment; of medical personnel shot as they treat the wounded; of blindfolded detainees whipped and given electric shocks; of snipers targeting people seen filming demonstrations with mobile phones.

The country’s economy is struggling and unemployment is rife, but whenever I asked what provoked the unrest, the answer was always the same: ‘Dignity’. This simple word has reverberated around the region in recent months, encapsulating a sense of degrading powerlessness under corrupt, despotic regimes.

Syrians spoke of wanting an end to fathers humiliated in front of their families by security goons, of parents living in fear of the disappearance of a son or daughter, of petty officials constantly demanding bribes and of well-connected individuals creaming off the nation’s wealth.

There have been repeated calls for the lifting of the state of emergency, imposed nearly half a century ago.

Some Syrians want regime change. But some just want reform, especially the older generations, partly out of admiration for Assad’s hardline stance on Israel and partly for fear of sectarian turmoil. This is a country that borders both Iraq and Lebanon, after all.

The president has mishandled events from the start.  First he hinted at reform, then he missed the chance to calm the anger with a rambling, shallow speech.

Next he blamed outside intervention and sectarian agitators, with footage on television of supposed spies and armed gangs. Now he is talking of concessions in what may be the final chance to salvage his soiled regime and show he has learned the lessons of recently deposed despots.

Last night Assad said he expects the state of emergency to be lifted next week – although he also carefully linked ‘security’ with ‘dignity’ in his televised speech to the dismay of activists, who remain sceptical the repression will end.

The accidental autocrat, in charge only because his older brother died in a car crash, and married to the beautiful daughter of an Acton cardiologist, has repeatedly dashed previous hints of reform. He remains strong, propped up by elite military forces and an estimated 200,000 secret police.

The big fear is he might repeat the grotesque tactics of his father when faced with a revolt by Sunni Muslims. In February 1982, Hafaz Assad ordered his younger brother to flatten the town of Hama, an opposition stronghold.

Troops encircled the city, then it was carpet-bombed, shelled and bulldozed. At least 20,000 people died, most of them civilians.

There is also concern over what happens if Syria implodes. Like other Middle Eastern states, it is a mosaic of religions, tribes and ethnic groups glued together by the government.

But many Sunni Muslims believe the regime is run to benefit the Alawites, a Shia Islam sect that makes up just 11 per cent of the population. As a result, Assad made overtures to conservative Muslims earlier this month, stopping a controversial casino and rescinding a ban on teachers wearing the full-face veil.

Protesters repeatedly stress their unity, chanting ‘Syrians are one’. But if the country crumbles into sectarian violence, the implications are immense. Syria’s alliances with Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza might be weakened, but the consequences if the kaleidoscope is shaken would engulf the entire region.

Some believe there would inevitably be another civil war in Lebanon, while the Syrian border has long been Israel’s quietest despite the two countries’ enmity.

The hope is these protests lead to the end of the terror and savagery. But the fear is those teenagers spraying graffiti have sparked a fire that sets the Middle East aflame again.

That is why one source concluded our discussion by saying: ‘You know, all I really want is for my wife to be able to walk home in Damascus without fear at night.’ It doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?

*Khalid is an assumed name, used to protect his identity.

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