Middle East Voices brings you personal accounts from Syria. We invite Syrians on many sides of the conflict to tell the world how they cope with street violence, human tragedies, political chaos and economic loss in their daily lives. The Syrian government has limited international media to a small number of reporters escorted by government handlers. These Syria Witness reports cannot be independently verified. To assure their personal safety, many of these Witnesses do not use their real names. To submit your story, contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 1, 2012 – Sami in Homs: ‘We just wanted to stay alive’
In a live conversation yesterday on skype with Sami, a 24-year-old activist and citizen-journalist in Homs, there was tension in his voice, a sound of giddiness possibly from the adrenalin rush of a narrow escape through the streets of Homs, or from the severe cold of the day. When he talked about his mother, there were moments when he was so overcome with emotion that he could not speak. Sami, is not his real name. The facts are reflected in news coverage of Syria’s entry into the rebel stronghold near door to Sami’s neighborhood of Inshaat. There are reports that Sami and his family were safe the following day.
WITNESS: Sami, is it true that you left Inshaat?
SAMI: It’s not going from outside Inshaat. It’s going to the entrance of the area. I just go north where the shelling is much less and where there is not such intense shelling. It’s just inside the border line.
I left with my family and we are now in the house of one of my friends who is an activist. You have to know that I am shaking from the cold. It’s snowing here and I’m really shaking. I’m trying to remember of the word in English. It is one of the most terrible days that we have ever seen.
There was a crazy situation. There was shelling, there was fighting and clashes, I think, and shooting from live machine guns, and heavy machines. We were just running out. We have run out with nothing. We can’t take more over with us. It was a crazy situation.
WITNESS: Did you see snipers on the street?
SAMI: Actually it just took three to five minutes to reach that house. We were running and we have seen nothing. We just hear shooting but we cannot identify what is going on. We could but were afraid and we were just running. We just wanted to stay alive. We didn’t look to see people. We didn’t look to anything. We just go and it was horrible. I couldn’t do anything when I was running and shaking I was so afraid. I am still shaking. It could be it was very dangerous so we were unable to look to where the shooting was coming from.
WITNESS: How is your mother?
SAMI: Well, my mother, ahhhh … it’s very really…
Hello, can you still hear me?
WITNESS: Yes, I can hear you.
SAMI: Hello? Well yes. Well, she was crying all the time, she is still crying. Now I can see her. She is just, ssshhh, she is still praying and today she didn’t stop praying and asking God to stop the nightmares. You are asking me a very hard question.
WITNESS: Yes, I am sorry. What can you do about tomorrow?
SAMI: At least I cannot think about the army which is trying seriously to invade Baba Amr. You know, they are trying seriously. They are showing with everything they can they are using everything they can. They are using everything they can. I think they are going to enter Baba Amr. But I think the Free Syrian Army will just make a tactic fleeing from the area. I think that is the best, we are taking about that, about strategic escaping from the area where the shelling is very very very concentrated and they can’t of figure out they cannot take over that. I think it will be over in just a few hours. And I hope, I think, also what will happen but the army of the regime will enter that are and the FSA will flee from the area in a tactical way and they will not have a very big loss from their side.
WITNESS: A strategic withdrawal.
SAMI: Yeah, yeah.
WITNESS: Can they get out safely?
SAMI: I don’t know how they could. But I have heard from an activist who has connections with the Free Syrian Army. They could do that if they want to. They have a way and the activist is saying they could do it.
WITNESS: You still have no food no heat. What are the conditions in this house?
SAMI: The condition is that they are more than 20 people in this house and there are three rooms. There are more than 20. There are three children. We are here just, we don’t care about food, I think. We are just ask to stay alive because yesterday when they cut the electricity and they cut the water totally. That didn’t happen before in our area. In our area they cut it for a few hours.
Mister David, they cut it from the whole city and they cut the water from the whole city. That is a new step for the regime, you know, we hope that that situation will not last for a long time. We are just thinking about staying together and staying with each other.
We don’t have time to talk with our parents to know what they are really feeling. I’m trying to ignore their feelings because it will hurt me when I will ask them. And what they are trying to do. I am just trying to make myself busy as much as I can.
WITNESS: When you left did you see other people on the streets fleeing?
SAMI: We have arranged a time to flee with a group, you know. There was a plan that they will not shoot, that they will be hard to shoot everyone. We have arranged a time to flee together and we were a lot of families from my street and we arranged a time and were running as crazy people, running around on the street people will, yeah, yeah, I saw a lot of people. They were carrying things, some of them were carrying their ids, their money. And nobody was carrying any food or any medical supplies. We were just having to reach the most the nearest safe point we could reach.
WITNESS: And how far to this safe point?
SAMI: It’s not safe. It’s not a really safe point. It is safer than the others. It is safe for us. One hundred and fifty meters, three or four streets from my area.
WITNESS: If the FSA withdraws from Homs does that increase your chances for survival?
SAMI: I don’t think so. There will be from the regime forces they will try to act with us as though we are the fault, we are the guilty. For that I think there is a way that the FSA was protecting us. I really think so. It’s called, I can’t remember I can’t remember the words in English (an unidentified pounding sound is repeated three times). Trying to translate, they are trying to… you know, make revenge from us. As though we are supporting the Free Syrian Army.
I’m afraid they resent the operation on the civilians. That is the most fear that I could have. In a few days there words about actions against people who were trying to flee from Bab Amr. If you hear about it was over 50 people civilians. They just were resent the operations. Just resented.
WITNESS: Is there any chance you can escape from Homs?
SAMI: Now? I don’t think so. I don’t think it is now an urgent step. I don’t think it is very important to us. It doesn’t matter because if we are going to try to go out it will be a very big dangerous for us and that could be the much danger for us because all the way there are hundreds of soldiers, on the streets and tens of checkpoints. And they could shoot at any time. I don’t think that is an important step now I think.
The important step is that we could stay at this place inside our… (the Internet connection went dead).
February 27, 2012 – The collapse of tourism in historic Syria
Abd Alrahman Alhawary is a guide for English-speaking tours of Syria. He lives in Al-Sayedah Zeinab, a suburb to the southwest of Damascus. He spoke recently with Syria Witness about the economic impact of the 11-month Syrian political crisis, demonstrations, the government crackdown and shortages experienced due to the economic blockade of Syria by Arab League countries and other international sanctions. Neither Alhawary’s identity nor his account can be independently verified.
Witness: How is the travel business in Damascus these days?
Alhawary: Tourism in all of Syria is broken. People used to come here because it was very secure. Now, there is nothing. Last year I worked 250 days. Now, nothing.
I’m trying to do something else, interpreting at local festivals for people from Malaysia, Singapore and India. I can’t stop working. Some of the French-speaking guides have gone to Algeria and Morocco and Greek speakers went to Greece. They are flying to other countries to save their livelihoods. Sure, many send money home.
Witness: How long has the travel industry been broken?
Alhawary: Since the protesters started to attack the government…. People who come here want to enjoy security in our country. Also, when Great Britain told travelers not to come and travelers couldn’t get insurance in England for their travel to Syria, that was followed by the French, the Germans and others.
Witness: We have for many weeks received reports of demonstrations, confrontations with government security and mounting casualties in some suburbs of the capital. Have such events affected your life?
Alhawary: Not very much. My wife, my 17-year-old son and my parents live in the house with me. My son will receive his baccalaureate degree from the Industrial Technical School this year. I drive him to school every day and we have enough gas for that. It is a government school and it has not closed during these times.
There are regular power cut-offs here in Damascus. It is a habitual thing because of the embargo. Seven hours or less. But it gets bigger and bigger.
We have this problem with my work, but we have a good amount of savings to live on and we also have the support of the government. They give us free food and gas now and then.
Witness: Tell me about your career as a tour guide and about the Syria travel industry.
Alhawary: I’ve been a government-licensed tour guide since 1987. There are about 1,300 of us in Damascus, and about 2,500 in Syria. I used to lead groups from England, Poland, the Czech Republic and many other European countries. Groups as large as seven, 15 or 20. These tourists came from any of about 150 overseas tour operators. I would take them to Palmyra, to the coast, to Aleppo. Now I take a few religious groups to the mosques.
It’s not that bad. We do wish things will get better and better, in’shallah (God willing).
February 21, 2012 – Hasan: government security agents blanket Damascus
Hasan is an engineer who lives in Damascus. He says has been active in anti-Assad demonstrations for 10 months and has previously submitted accounts of life in the Syrian capital city during this period of unrest. Hasan is not his real name. The text below is his own. In some places it has been edited for style, but not substance. His account cannot be independently verified.
Greater Damascus actually is comprised of two of the nation’s largest southern governates: the city of Damascus is one, and the other governate is the suburbs that surround it. The latter is the Rif Damascus that is a much larger governate where most of the demonstrations occur.
Government security is so high in the city proper that the Free Syrian Army can offer us no protection. Therefore, we usually have relatively small protests and they don’t last long.
I provide English translations for the local coordination council in Damascus, participate in demonstrations every now and then and carry medicine and supplies for a suburb near Damascus. We don’t have any injuries right now but this was pro-active move as we are anticipating there will be an attack there soon.
I have connections with many people from around Syria, especially in Homs, Hama and Aleppo. I meet people from Damascus suburbs every day. Also, I know people from Deir Ezzor and Lattakia. Some of these people are loyalists, and some want to change the government. I know many Syrians who are loyalists but I can’t reveal my participation with the anti-Assad demonstrations or I’ll be condemned for treason, most likely I’d get killed inside some rotten cell.
The suburbs draw larger numbers of protesters as the Free Syrian Army can offer protection for the demonstrations and for the funerals that inevitably result.
One of the biggest Free Syrian Army successes to date was the liberation of the resort city of Zabadani to the northwest in the Syrian Plateau. Even when Assad’s army tried to storm the city, they were forced to pull back across the river. The FSA was still holding Zabadani while Assad forces were besieging and shelling it for 9 days in a row, until last Sunday when the FSA retreated and allowed Assad forces in. The FSA retreated in order to stop the shelling by the government that cost many lives of innocent civilians. I heard that their withdrawal was under the terms that Assad forces can establish only a few checkpoints in specific locations and they can’t arrest or harm anyone.
The FSA forces also delayed Assad forces from entering eastern Ghouta for two days. Because they had not enough ammunition, our rebel army had to retreat. Ghouta is to the east and north-east of Damascus. Internet has been cut off in Ghouta since January 29.
Ordinary people have been contributing funds to support the FSA. Everyone is giving whatever they can. I’m aware of donations being made, we act in groups so that there is almost no way to detect us. I don’t know very much beyond my direct connections, as I believe that the less I know the less we are vulnerable.
The Free Syrian Army is growing and Assad forces are going crazy. The security forces have increased security in some Damascus neighborhoods friendly to the regime because they fear reprisals by opposition groups who’ve been attacked during their demonstrations by Syrians who are not in uniform.
When I passed near Political Intelligence headquarters in Mazzeh, a western neighborhood in Damascus, I counted 10 armed agents standing in plain sight on the street. The regime has intensified its security measures near security centers in Damascus and blocked many streets. They’ve put up road blocks and check points for inspections at the entrances to neighborhoods where army officers and other pro-Assad people live.
The body count in Damascus and beyond
I don’t know why the United Nations has stopped estimating the numbers of Syrian civilians who have been killed in the revolution.
Many activists don’t trust the reporting of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, but according to the Local Coordination Committee, a group that I work with as a volunteer, here are numbers that show where most Syrians have been killed in the last 11 months: Damascus gave 161 martyrs, the cities and villages of Rif Damascus gave 784. In all of Syria, 8,155 Syrians have died as martyrs. Most are men, but 540 children and 244 women are among them.
Some of the numbers that get lost in this conflict are the more than 212,000 Syrians that have been detained by the government, 418 that have been tortured to death, 35,000 that have been injured and 65,000 that are missing.
Conditions have become so difficult that more than 19,727 have escaped to other countries. There are 10,227 in Turkey and 5,500 in Lebanon and more than 4,000 in Jordan. I don’t know how much longer Assad can continue this or how long he will last, but I know for sure that the people will stand firm forever.
Losing Internet, food and shelter
The president is trying to hide so many facts about Syria these days. The Internet in the eastern suburbs of Damascus was shut down in January and on Friday it was cut off in Homs, Hama and Idlib, where much of the violence is occurring.
Daily life in the suburbs and other parts of the nation is getting worse. Residents of large portions of the suburbs have no food or shelter now. Their neighborhoods are now declared afflicted areas, and many have fled their homes to seek refuge in Damascus or other towns.
Assad is trying to terrify loyalists with propaganda to make the revolution look like a sectarian fight which it is not. Having security measures increased near the loyalists will make it look like there is a credible threat and Assad forces are committed to protect the loyalists.
The government media accused the Free Syrian Army of the bombardment of Homs and called them nothing more than armed gangs who carry “advanced weapons. “
In the media, Assad has long accused the U.S., the U.K., France, as well as Qatar and other countries of the Gulf Coordinating Council of conspiring with us to bring down Syria. By that he really means his regime, not the people of Syria.
February 17, 2012 – Hasan in Damascus argues for foreign intervention, dodges shabiha
Hasan is an engineer who lives in Damascus. He says has been active in anti-Assad demonstrations for 10 months and has previously submitted accounts of life in the Syrian capital city during this period of unrest. Hasan is not his real name. The text below is his own. In some places it has been edited for style, but not substance. His account cannot be independently verified.
Syrians are not so shocked by the double veto by Russia and China in the United Nations. But a friend of mine is very mad about it.
“They don’t care about who’s right or wrong,” my friend said. “They don’t care about innocent people getting bombed.”
On Addunia television, the government constantly accuses the United States, the UK, France, Turkey and the Gulf states, especially Qatar, of conspiring against the regime.
Frankly, my friend said, he didn’t think any other countries would help Syria. “France and the others are just words.” He said we don’t need foreign military intervention, just some logistical support like a no-fly zone for the Free Syrian Army.
“We have fighters,” he argued. “I’m willing to join FSA where I can be more useful. Thousands of others say the same thing.”
Until that day comes, my friend and I continue to demonstrate. But even the peaceful marches are becoming more difficult in the capital.
Others told me that a week ago Saturday as regime tanks began shelling the city of Homs, hundreds of Damascenes joined a march in the heart of Damascus to honor a Muslim scholar. He was not a victim of the Assad repression. The scholar died in a normal way. He was a famous religious scholar, some may call him a cleric. They say he had been ill for more than one year and had no chance to express his stance, but people believe he would have stood against Assad.
Damascenes were waiting for a chance to gather and demonstrate and the funeral was a great opportunity, so it turned into a demonstration. The government was worried that it would turn political and sent security forces who used tear gas and live ammunition to break it up. The same horrible story, some friends told me.
After the clash over the scholar’s funeral, we were concerned that all future demonstrations would be stopped the same way. Including ours. We were right.
A demonstration cut short
Last Wednesday we joined one of nine demonstrations that occurred all at the same time. They were scheduled for the same day because we’re trying to wear out the regime security forces.
Our march lasted only 10 minutes before Assad’s soldiers and his dreaded militia, the shabiha, showed up.
We had been on the street only a few minutes when we heard someone shout.
All 40 of us began to run in many different directions. About seven of us headed for a building. When we got out of the building, two men stopped us.
I was standing alongside a Palestinian, a good friend I have known for many years. He is one of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees living in Syria.
We faced the two men, not sure what to do. Were they government security or shabiha?
Are those guys thugs?
These two men wore plain cloths but were not carrying any weapons. It’s hard to tell the government security forces from the shabiha. The main difference is that security forces are formal government employees. The soldiers wear military uniforms with insignias.
Shabiha may be also employees but not in the security section. We just call them thugs.
Sometimes the shabiha wear khaki clothes, or blue jean trousers and black leather jackets. Most of the time they do not wear uniform, just plain clothes. Sometimes security forces wear khaki, too, but sometimes they have on black uniforms.
We thought they might be security agents.
“Where are you from?” they asked me. I suppressed my fear and tried to calm down.
“I’m from this area,” I lied.
When they turned to my friend, I ran. I was worried they might arrest my friend but I couldn’t stay. I thought I can do nothing for him and I’d better save myself.
When I got back to my car and returned to the alley, he was alone and safe.
He, too, lied and slipped through their fingers. It turned out they didn’t arrest anyone so they must not have had security IDs.
My Palestinian friend had joined many of the anti-regime demonstrations in the city and came close to being arrested at least three times before.
Despite those close calls, he continues to risk his life. “Because I should do this,” he tells me.
February 14, 2012 – Sami in Homs asks, ‘Where the hell is the world?’
After dark on the ninth day of the bombardment of the Syrian city of Homs, Syrian tanks on a boulevard in the rebel-held suburb of Baba Amr fell silent for the night.
On that Tuesday night, a family of four Syrians sat in hiding in their dark house just a few streets away from the tanks’ target, waiting for the sun to rise and the shelling to begin again. The younger of two of the family’s sons sat there with his battery-powered Hewlett Packard Pavilion laptop through which he was able connect to the outside world – a rare feat for anyone these days in Homs.
He calls himself Sami and last spoke to Middle East Voices’ Syria Witness on December 15. Sami is a 24-year-old activist in Homs who gave up his university studies to demonstrate, march in rallies, and attend funerals of killed activists which are increasingly becoming venues in their own right used by Syria’s opposition movement to call for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad.
Eleven months into the unrest in Syria, Sami says he is worried that the tanks in Homs are about to repeat the devastation unleashed by the president’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in the city of Hama in 1982 when he called in his security forces to root out local Muslim Brotherhood rebels. After a month of searches, sniper fire, on-the-spot executions and bombardment by Syrian tanks that had circled the city, Hama had then lost an estimated 20,000 of its residents.
Going outside is meaning like you are attempting suicide, – Sami in Homs
The United Nations estimates 300 people have died in the last 10 days in Homs. Sami is more worried, however, about hundreds of Homs residents who are trapped in their homes and who have suffered injuries in the shelling. And – he is worried about the threat of starvation, he said. Those of the wounded who would still be able to leave their homes to get medical help are afraid to do so because of rampant sniper fire in the streets.
Shooting at everything that moves
“There is a lot of shooting,” Sami said on Tuesday, Valentine’s Day for the rest of the world. “There are a lot of snipers here. I can hear them shooting. Going outside is meaning like you are attempting suicide,” added he, allowing himself some imperfections in his otherwise fairly fluent, if heavily accented, English.
With each shell bursting, the family’s apartment building shakes. Syrian security forces have come into their neighborhood six times in recent weeks, looking for evidence of what they call terrorists, Sami said. Every time it happens and he is on his computer, he shuts the lid as a precaution.
The family lives on the second floor of an apartment building in the Inshaat neighborhood. On one side of Sami’s building, one apartment has been looted by troops and the family now lives in Lebanon. On the other, a friend suffered shrapnel wounds to the neck when a shell exploded in his apartment. According to Sami, the neighbor cannot leave home to get the minor surgery his injuries require.
Sami gets out more than the rest of his family. He said he has helped drag to safety many of those injured in the streets over the past few days.
“A lot of them are really starving and having a bad day here. With their cuts, their wounded, their injuries, some of them are wanting to die, hoping that they could die, and they could just become with God.”
He is also worried about health conditions. “I want to tell you about something that may be very small but it really matters. The way, for example, it is in the streets of our neighborhood. It smells really bad. I think that could spread diseases really soon.”
“Where the hell is the world? We are waiting for them to do something. They have to move quickly, the humanitarian situation is really bad.”
Without power, food supplies are dwindling
“It is not for me. I can do without bread, but they can’t last without help. The world has to act quickly. Quickly. It’s the ninth day.”
Homs is essentially without electricity these days and cut off from the world, Sami says. Cell phones don’t work anymore and landlines only work within Homs. The Internet goes out along with the power, even though Sami finds ways to get online.
“The Assad forces shoot at anything that moves. Anything without a differentiation between if you are a baby, if you are a child, if you are a woman, if you are a man trying to find any food.”
We don’t have anything except hope, and that can end very soon. Did you hear me? – Sami in Homs
“There is no food inside the city of Homs,” he said. Their refrigerator went dark on the first day of the siege and three days later they had to throw their food away. Sami’s father decided to try to go out and search for bread and vegetables on Monday.
“We decided to go together, that if somebody was shooted, the other could try to help him.” They were able to get to a local bakery where they had to queue for more than an hour, and also got a few small vegetables.
Neighbors in his Inshaat neighborhood call out to one another for news and for food, he said. “So we cannot to go and give the bread to them so we throw the bread from the windows.”
The isolation and food shortages have affected the entire family. Sami’s older brother refuses to leave the house. “He is too afraid from everything.”
A mother crying
Sami’s mother cries all the time. “She is still crying all over the day when the shooting starts in the early morning. Every day she keeps crying and praying and she really makes me feel bad when I see her crying and praying. She says they are killers and butchers. And they don’t even have mercy.”
Sami’s father examines the empty shelves in the kitchen and thinks about risking his life again for a trip to the bakery. “He was telling me he imagines the next shell may bounce our house. ‘How could I feel if any one of you will be injured? It would kill me,’” said Sami, attributing words to his father.
“This is really a disaster. We have hundreds of thousands people stuck in their homes. No electricity, no food, no baby meds. This is not a situation that [people] can deal with [for a] very long time.”
“I don’t know what the world is waiting for. We are stuck at our homes and waiting for the next shell to come down on our heads. We don’t have anything except hope, and that can end very soon. Did you hear me?”
January 27, 2012 – Ali from Damascus reports human rights violations
Ali Hasan is a name adopted for the revolution by a 36-year-old civil engineer. He is married and the father of a one-year-old boy. His suburban home is the Damascus office for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London. Hasan maintains a network of human rights monitors throughout the country and reports human rights violations where conflict occurs between protesters, the military forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the regime’s Shabiha militias. Hasan spoke to Syrian Witness Thursday, January 26.
Witness: The United Nations just announced that they have stopped publishing the death tolls in Syria because they say they cannot confirm the numbers, which were above 5,000 at their last count. What do you think the death toll is?
Ali Hasan: Our records say that 6,732 people have died. If you add the 31 who died today, that’s 6,763. We e-mail these records to London every day.
We have gathered evidence on all of the martyrs’ deaths. We make records of the names and contacts of all witnesses, the people who carried the box and buried the martyr. We have the names of all of the dead on Excel spread sheets, with the date and time when they died, street where they died, their age and whether man, women or child.
We spend about $40,000 each month. It’s a very expensive operation because we also shoot videos on hi-resolution video cameras. We have videos of the protests, the shootings, the injured and the funerals. We use satellite phones to carry live broadcasts to Al Jazeera and other Arabic channels.
Witness: Why are you doing human rights reporting?
Ali Hasan: We are all activists and revolutionaries and we are cooperating to report to the media about the violations of human rights act in Syria which happen because, as everybody knows, our regime prevents the media or any kind of human rights organization to go inside Syria to take the real view freely and without any kind of security forces. The Arab League didn’t visit any area in Syria being surrounded by the security forces.
Witness: What are you reporting about today?
Ali Hasan: In Douma today there was a lot of shooting and gunfire. Since 8:35 in the morning the government invaded and cut the power all over the town. They cut communications twice during the day. More than 200 were arrested, but it is hard to know just how many are arrested or injured. It is easier to know about the dead.
Three martyrs died in Douma today and a total of 31 Syrians have been killed since midnight yesterday until this moment. Just two hours ago 10 children and six women were killed in a neighborhood in Homs. And over the last two days about 600 people have been detained.
It started five days ago when about 150 people joined a funeral and made it a demonstration. The government invaded Douma because it is only seven kilometers from Damascus and they don’t want more demonstrations in the capital. In hot areas like this they want to cover it up and delete it.
Video, reportedly from Douma, of security forces disrupting a funeral (authenticity not independently confirmed):
Today they searched each of the houses and said they were looking for members of the Free Syrian Army, but it is only to find protesters. The Free Syrian Army does not want to fight the security forces. They just want to protect the funerals and the protesters.
Witness: Have you been to Douma?
Ali Hasan: Not for many months. We do not travel because it is too dangerous. We are afraid that if one of us is arrested and tortured the rest of us are in danger. We have three people in Douma who call and describe events by the name of the street and other information. We talk on skype, on satellite phones and by e-mail. Syrian telephone is very dangerous because it is under Rani Makhlouf, the president’s cousin. We found that Iran gave some kind of technology to catch those who use the Thuraya satellite phone, but a roaming phone is more safe. It looks like any other cell phone but it has a sim card from another country.
Witness: Do you have a large staff?
Ali Hasan: We have many staff but we try to keep only two people working at any time. If they catch one or two, it is better than 10. We don’t know who will be the next martyr, but we want our freedom.
We feel we are alone here. We have no support from the rest of the world or other human rights organizations. That help is only for refugees, not the injured and the orphans in Syria. Seven thousand families have lost a member.
Syrian revolutionaries and activists spend their salary to carry this revolution. Many are injured and cannot go to the hospital. Some of the martyrs have children who need school of hospital care. We make home hospitals for them. Security forces shot a guy in front of a mosque because he carried medicine. That is most important. Second is school for the children.
I hope you will be able to come someday and we can meet face to face. When the media come, they can ask for any names and for the martyr’s family and friends. We have many witnesses. Those who carried the guy and out him in his grave. They have lost their blood. Their lives. We do what we can. In’shallah (God willing).
January 13, 2012 – Jasmine writes about a protest in Damascus
Jasmine is a political activist in her mid-20s who lives in a suburb of Damascus. Jasmine is not her real name. She moved with her family to a less-expensive suburb of the capital from the old Damascus neighborhood of Qanawat about 10 years ago. Early last year she left a job as a project coordinator to become a full-time revolutionary. Her first narrative describes events during the beginning of a three-week nationwide Strike for Dignity and government treatment of women who protest. Businesses have closed in many parts of the country. Eventually, schools, universities, and government are to shut down, according to organizers.
Closed shops in Madaya district in Damascus, Dec. 26 (video content not independently confirmed)
It’s 5:30 in the morning in Damascus and I have just finished a field meeting with some friends. We walked and drove around a neighborhood to find the best route for one of the demonstrations. We decided on the route and discussed how we could safely distribute fliers advertising the event.
Passing out fliers is dangerous because many shopkeepers, most of the taxi drivers and all of the real estate agents in these neighborhoods cooperate with government security branches of Damascus security branches. Some are paid to inform on the organizers of protests. We study all of these people carefully because we don’t want to lose any of our members.
Women are arrested but not tortured
Yesterday was better than most of days. A friend of mine who was arrested four days ago by the state security branch in Damascus was just released from prison.
They grabbed her when she tried to prevent them from arrested a teenager who was protesting alongside her. She held onto the teenager and shouted at the agents. So they took them both.
We couldn’t find out where they took them until my friend was released.
She was not afraid of what they would do, because people here have stopped thinking of their fear. Yes, she was afraid but she knows what she wants and she told them that she wants freedom. They told her to stop showing up at demonstration. She didn’t take their advice. Many of us have been arrested two or three times but we keep going back to the marches on the streets of Damascus.
Anyway, my friend is pretty good now.
Street demonstration in Barzeh district of Damascus, Thursday, January 5 (video content not independently confirmed)
The government doesn’t hurt Damascene women when they arrest them. At least, they haven’t tortured women so far. Maybe that’s because they don’t want to provoke the people of the capital. To hit or assault a woman would simply prolong the protests and increase the number of revolutionaries. Women are respected in Syria in general.
For the first five months of the revolution, security forces did not even arrest girls or women. Now they arrest us but we pretend we are far away from politics. Often the police let them us go but I don’t believe the police really believe we are innocent.
Men who join in the demonstrations in Damascus are usually arrested for about a month and are tortured by members of the security branches and then released. However, in the countryside, security never lets them go. Many are killed under torment.
Trying to shut down the economy
On Sunday, we began with the three-week of the Strike for Dignity. Shops all over Syria were closed in protest of the violence of the regime. We hoped this would lead to freeze the whole country at the end. We also hoped that this longer protest will persuade more Damascene to join us. The strikes were successful in many cities. In Aleppo and Damascus, shops remained closed for only a few days, but shut-downs lasted longer in other cities, such as Homs.
We think that if we step forward and Assad’s security forces see that we are not armed, they will not fire on us. It is important to us that Syrians not take up weapons. If that works and others join us in the Strike for Dignity, we can bring down the regime.
Many of these soldiers and not well-educated and when they see those of us who are educated youth and older intellectuals, they will think seriously about whether they want to fire on us.
Noise makers in nighttime protest in Homs, Thursday, January 12 (Reuters video)
We are really afraid of losing control on the street. We want this to be a peaceful revolution, no matter what the cost. In our Muslim belief, we are not afraid of death and we are not afraid to risk our lives in these street protests. But as political activists, we also believe 100 percent that killing people is not an option.
We planned the strike to effect all sectors of Damascus, even the schools.
I started by trying to persuade my neighbor to stop sending her children to school. It was difficult because she didn’t understand how shutting down the schools would make any difference.
She had heard about the plans for the strike, but when I asked if she would keep her daughter home from school, she was reluctant.
“But she’ll miss classes,” she said. “I will if everybody stops sending one’s child I will.
“She’ll miss class, right, but all over Syria people are missing their lives or their beloved ones. If everyone thought like you, no one will stop and the strikes will never work. Then the killing will keep going on. We should start the strike and stop the regime. Please think of it.
“We might have hard times, but your daughter’s future in Syria will absolutely be better. Let’s work for the children.”
My neighbor smiled and agreed to think it over. Actually I don’t know if she kept her daughter out of school or not.
January 10, 2012 – Hasan waits for hours to get cooking fuel in Damascus
Syria Witness talked with Hasan about his family’s hardships during the economic sanctions imposed by the international community on Syria. Hasan describes rising food prices, power and fuel shortages, and how hard daily life is getting now for his family.
Witness: How is life in Damascus these days? Do you always have electricity, are rates going up? Is petrol hard to come by? Tell me about the power supply. Any problems?
Hasan: Syrian people are now facing economic difficulties. Prices went up. Car petrol prices went up from 44 Syrian pounds for a liter to 50 S.P. Fuel is so hard to get. Public transportation fees went up also.
In Damascus, electricity is being cut off for at least two hours per day, some areas for four hours or so. In the suburbs it is usually cut off for seven hours per day. We use rechargeable lights and candles for lighting when the electricity is off.
We are also running out of propane for cooking and heating. I’ve stood in line for more than five hours to get a cylinder of the propane that we use for cooking and heating. It is winter here in Syria. It is like 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit in Damascus and like zero in suburbs, even less in Homs.
The official price of a cylinder is 250 S.P. ($4.75) and a reseller would sell it for 275 to 300 S.P. Propane is controlled by the government. There are several official government distributors in Damascus. There are also resellers. Now it is very very hard to get even one cylinder. If you don’t want to wait in line to buy from a government store but rather pay a reseller more it is now up to 1200 S.P. ($20), about 5 times the original price (1200 S.P. = $20). On top of that, after the revolution began, the exchange rate on the U.S. dollar rose from less than 50 S.P. before the revolution to about 62 S.P.
Witness: So you are experiencing freezing temperatures now. Have any elderly died in these temperatures?
Hasan: I don’t know anyone dying of low temperatures.
Witness: Tell me about the price and availability of certain foods. Any shortages? What does your mother have to say about that? Do you cook?
Hasan: I don’t cook myself, but I buy food to be cooked: prices of almost all kinds of food went higher, some important groceries like tomato are up like 20 to 30 percent.
Witness: What about vegetables, flour, sugar, cooking oil, and other essentials? Do you walk or drive to the store? Have you stopped buying anything to save money?
Hasan: I usually drive to stores in my neighborhoods or other neighborhoods, vegetables, cooking oil and meat are all much higher now. We stopped buying some high-priced food. I mainly buy vegetables and fruits from government owned stores.
Witness: Is it the same in other parts of Syria?
Hasan: It is clear that the situation in Damascus is way better than other areas. I know people from Damascus suburbs and they stopped buying many things and concentrated on low-priced food.
People are so afraid to spend their money now. They tend to keep money rather than spend. They say that there will come much tougher days and they need to save money to survive. I noticed that people now rarely go to restaurants. In Syria, restaurants are more expensive than home-made food.
Witness: Do you see empty restaurants. Have any shut down?
Hasan: I know a restaurant owner in the Damascus suburbs. He was sad one day and he told me that he had to lay off some workers. He said he didn’t want to do that because he knew they have families but he couldn’t pay their wages any more.
Restaurants are losing customers. I used to go to some fast food and juice restaurants in Damascus with my friends to buy beef-burgers, Mexican chicken, pizza and Shawarma, which is Turkish chicken. Now, we stay at some friend’s place and drink tea or cold drinks. I sometimes drive by restaurants. Usually these areas were crowded and it was hard to find a place to park. Now, I can drive by easily and I can barely find cars on the streets near these restaurants.
Witness: What does your mother say about all of this?
Hasan: I told her a friend said that these sanctions will have a bad effect on us, but not the regime.
“Sure, it will affect us,” she said. “This is a gang-minded regime we have.”
The three of us, me, mom and dad, were sitting in the living room after lunch. We had just heard some news on television (Al-Jazeera) about the sanctions. My mother is emotional and sometimes cries when she thinks about young innocent people who are being killed on the streets.
She became angry and said “the regime will make sure we suffer and will try to use these sanctions to market their ‘conspiracy’ falsehood. People are now determined and we know these sanctions will affect us, but we are willing to bare the difficulties in order to get rid of this regime”
I said, “Pro-regime people say that we are already under sanctions and they won’t affect the regime because they are accustomed to these conditions and friends like Iran and Russia will stand by us.”
My Dad is a calm and I would say a wise man. He said that was a stupid analysis.
“Sure we were under sanctions, but these new sanctions would make it harder for Assad to pay Shabiha and the security forces.” He said many merchants support Assad because they benefit from the corruption, but they won’t support him until the end. Iran is also facing economical difficulties and sanctions. “These sanctions will affect Assad regime for sure.”
My father is right, I think. Shabiha are not fully financed by the government. Some big merchants who got wealthy under Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, finance Shabiha. Some say that sanctions will affect these merchants’ business and then they will give up on Assad.
I have heard that some merchants in Aleppo have refused to pay shabiha. People say a factory there was set on fire by security forces because the owner refused to support Assad. I can’t confirm that story, though, but I now another merchant who fled the country after he transferred most of him money to banks outside of Syria.
January 5, 2012 – Hasan maps protest landscape in Damascus
Hasan is an engineer in his 20s. Hasan is not his real name. He has been demonstrating against the Assad regime in the streets of Damascus for nine months. He writes today about the political landscape of the capital city, where the demonstraters come from, and the neighborhoods where they gather to risk their lives in protest.
Most of my neighbors are afraid to talk about their political opinions at home. Out of fear, some of them express support for the regime, but later I see some of them in other neighborhoods protesting against Bashar Assad.
The political landscape of Damascus looks like this
Midan is a suburb just south of Old Damascus. People who live in Midan took the lead in the early stages of the revolution. Many native Damascenes and others who have more recently moved to this ancient capital city from other parts of Syria have gathered in Midan to demonstrate.
I’ve demonstrated there several times and I’ve seen many friends from other parts of the city demonstrate alongside me in Midan. I’ve also protested in Rukneddin, which is between Salhieh and Barzeh to the north of the city, and in Qanawat, a western section of Old Damascus.
Old Damascus has almost zero activity because the families that live there just don’t want to risk anything.
There are other neighborhoods that vary according to whether residents are of the same purity, having the same ethnic or cultural background. This is a widely embraced theory here: when people don’t know each other well they won’t trust each other and so demonstrations become almost impossible to coordinate.
Damascus neighborhoods can be divided into four types in my opinion
Old Damascus: Damascenes say they live “inside the fence” in ancient neighborhoods such as Bab Sharqi, Harmeidieh and Amara. The fence is a popular term recalling earlier times when Damascus was a smaller city protected by walls. Today it remains mostly a traditional area where tourists go. People who live there are so naive and afraid to make any move. It is widely known that they don’t like Assad but won’t act against him.
Salhieh and Midan are older neighborhoods “outside the fence” mainly inhabited by Damascenes who are more “pure” in terms of their origins. Midan is a southern neighborhood labeled “the capital of revolution in Damascus”.
Other wealthy and prestigious neighborhoods like Malki and Abu Rummaneh are not into the revolution but some people living there have risked their lives for the revolution. An engineer painted “People want to topple the regime” on a building in Malki and was arrested and tortured for a long period before he was released. Others have died.
Then, there are modern and mixed neighborhoods that are now part of a larger Damascus. They are not as pure. Pure ones like Barzeh in the northeast joined the protests earlier than other ones like Mazzeh in the southwest. When Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, was president, he moved many of his supporters, especially army and security officials, to parts of these neighborhoods.
Illegal communities like “Mazzeh 86” grew around the homes of the security personnel. In Barzeh, there is “Osh Warwar”. “Masaken Haras,” which translates to “residency of presidential guard” is in Dummar in the northwest. Other modern neighborhoods, like “Masaken Barzeh” (near Barzeh), “Adawi” to the north and “Mashroo Dummar” near Dummar are communities settled by people from all regions of Syria.
Large protests have occurred in communities established by people from other parts of Syria. Some of the new neighborhoods were settled not long ago by refugees from Golan Heights and they have become full participants in our effort to put an end to the Assad regime.
Two of those neighborhoods are Hajar Aswad on the southern edge of Damascus where people from Golan now live, and Rukneddin, whose population is largely Kurdish. They have organized many huge protests and many of these refugees have been martyred.
December 23, 2011 – Hasan is gassed in Damascus protest
Hasan is an engineer who is in his 20s. He has been marching in the streets of Damascus to protest against his government for nine months. He lives with his parents in a modern suburb of the world’s oldest capital city. He writes about what happened when a thousand Shabiha attacked a protest Hasan says was attended by an estimated 7,000 Syrians in the Midan area of the city.
Learning a tear gas lesson
I started protesting against my government on March 15 and I have demonstrated in Damascus and its suburbs many times since then. But I learned the lessons of about tear gas on the first day of Ramadan when I joined one of three protests in the Midan, the heart of the city’s protest movement.
There were about 7,000 protesters on the streets that sunny day, protesting against the storming of Hama by government forces two days before. I was walking near the front of the crowd when I heard the sounds of Shahiba who had come up behind us and were attacking the read of the crowd with batons and tear gas guns.
I saw some young men form a protective circle around five women. They all started running.
Three tear gas grenades fell right in front of me. Some protestors picked up a couple of the canisters and threw them back at the Shabiha.
A friend near me tried, but it burned his hand and he dropped it.
For about 20 seconds I couldn’t breathe and the smoke surrounded me. I felt like someone set me on fire. I felt like there was fire on every inch of my skin. I was sweating and felt a very bad taste in my tongue and throat.
I ran blindly to an alley and tried to get some fresh air into my lungs.
I was lucky that my friends and I had searched in the Internet and we knew not to rub our eyes. One protester tossed me a can of soft drink to wash my face. I poured it all over my head. I couldn’t tell whether it was Coca-Cola or Pepsi but it helped me to recover within a few minutes.
I am very angry at President Assad
The government is storming cities and firing at civilians. It even orders collective punishment by escalating these acts at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. That action has two meanings in my opinion: to try to pressure Muslims by ordering other sects to show hatred in Ramadan, and try to quell the revolution before it gets larger during Ramadan when each evenings prayer is like Friday and can lead to protests.
My main concern when I was running was my brother and our friends who were in the demonstration but not near me. I was concerned about whether they make it and how can they run if they don’t know the alleys. And about getting arrested.
But to be honest, I’d rather be killed than arrested. I am afraid that if the Shabiha caught me that they would interrogate me under torture me and make me tell the names of others in the protest. Many of my friends have been arrested by all branches of security forces. They were brutally tortured and many of them couldn’t bear it. They told about some other activists who then got arrested, hid or fled the country.
I am Sunni, but I can’t tell if we were all Muslims, but I can tell that there was a young man in front of me wearing a low-waisted jeans and a red t-shirt and he seemed not to be at mosque as his clothes were not suitable. He was chanting loudly and he led a part of the demonstration.
There were about a thousand Shabiha there that day. I don’t remember seeing any uniform police or army that night. One important point I want to make is that not Shabiha are not all Alewite, there are many Sunnis and Christians among them. Basically, it is not a sectarian thing but a low-level career for people with no morals. We just call them thugs.
They were wearing khaki uniforms or wearing ordinary street clothes. The Shabiha who carried tear gas launchers wore helmets. Others did not.
The Shabiha are everywhere
More recently in Midan, the government has used live ammunition. I was not able to attend several funerals this week for those who died in Midan.
During the August 1 protest when I was there the security forces didn’t use live ammunition against us. I’ve never been near live ammunition because after Ramadan most demonstrations were quickly organized and held at night to reduce the chances of arrest and to allow more people to participate.
My brother also escaped that day with his friends to some safe area where I met them. None of us was taken that day but I do believe my name is somewhere written on some report or file in a security “office”. I think they don’t have time for someone like me now as there are tens of thousands of activists now all over the country. The government is too busy looking for high-profile activists to put down as they did with Ghiath Matar of Daraya, Hadi Jundi of Homs and Anas Shoughri of Banias.
I can’t tell if we were all Muslims, but I can tell that there was a young man in front of me wearing a low-waisted jeans and a red t-shirt and he seemed not to be at mosque as his clothes were not suitable. He was chanting loudly and he led a part of the demonstration.
That night and every night of Ramadan, everyone knew that there is a demonstration in Midan. Other protests are organized in secret and only trusted people are told about, mostly face to face and online using Facebook, skype or any other social networks. Sometimes we use telephones but we use symbols for places and security presence level.
December 20, 2011 – Sami reveals defenders of Homs protects
We talked last week via online chat with a 24-year-old university student and protester in Homs about how an anti-regime demonstrator moves around in this center of dissent with the help of the Free Syrian Army. Sami (not his real name) described his experiences during recent protests. In some places his responses were edited for style, but not substance. In others, details that might compromise our source were left out.
Middle East Voices: We’re getting reports that government troops have surrounded Homs for the past several days, and that armed militia supporting the president have set up around 60 checkpoints. Tell us what you’ve been seeing and hearing?
Sami: No. The checkpoints are manned by army and security forces, not Shabiha, which are Assad’s militia. The Shabiha stand near the checkpoints to be sure Assad’s soldiers follow orders and occasionally kidnap people they think are activists.
The defectors who joined the Free Syrian Army stand near us during the protests to prevent the Assad regime from attacking us. They have automatic guns and what we in Syria call Russian weapons. I talk with them sometimes but most of the time they don’t [talk about their defections]. I talked with one who was from Deir ElZour in the northeast of Syria. He defected from the army when he was asked to shoot people in Homs and he joined the Free Syrian Army but those forces have not entered Homs yet.
Without the Free Syrian Army we absolutely can’t stage any protest because when they don’t join us, Assad forces attack us directly.
Video footage of a recent protest purportedly shot in Homs.
Middle East Voices: Are there troops or militia in your neighborhood? Are you free to move around the city? Can you walk or drive around Homs and are you stopped at checkpoints. What questions do they ask? Are you still attending classes and going to work?
Sami: This week, there was no work or classes at school at all because all of Homs city has been in a Karama strike (strike for dignity) since Saturday. Before this week, I was attending class only on the days when there was no military operation or shooting. In the first week of December, I worked for four days.
Middle East Voices: How do you feel having armed militia watching you each day? Are you afraid they might mistake you for someone else and arrest you, or shoot at you because they think you are doing something wrong?
Sami: It’s really a bad feeling when you keep seeing armed soldiers all around you at markets, around houses and even at the university, which holds the Baath party name.
I swear that I was shocked when I saw a huge number of soldiers walking inside the university. They were fully armed and had a bad look. In the first weeks of the army being inside the city we were so scared but we have become more accustomed to it.
It still makes me feel terrible but not as much as in the first weeks. When I pass a checkpoint or when army vehicles are moving around the city they keep pointing their weapons directly at us and they keep being ready to shoot. They do that especially to make us feel scared.
There are three checkpoints near my home. I can move only in day time. After it gets dark the soldiers at these checkpoints may open live fire on any moving thing. I can go only to certain places in Homs. For example, I can go to Hamra Ghouta because it is near my home, but if I want to go to a neighborhood further away, they stop me. And when Assad forces stop you, they ask a lot of questions only if you passed from a checkpoint that is not part of your area but if the checkpoint is in my area, they just check identification. For example, if I want to go to the Khalidya neighborhood I would be asked why am I’m going there, what I have with me and who I plan to meet. They also check cars to see if you have any large amount of food or medical supplies or anything linked to anti-regime activity.
Middle East Voices: We have seen many videos of funerals, and shop burnings and protests in areas like Bab Sbaa, Wadr Arab and Bab Amro. Have you been there? Do you march in protests? Your parents must be very worried about your safety. What do they think about what is happening in Homs?
Sami: Homs is a big city and when any military operation starts in one area it usually doesn’t spread to other places so where you live is an important thing, because life could be totally stopped in one area while it’s still normal in another. Bab Sbaa is a part of the old city of Homs. It’s … where the revolution began. I would join a protest there but now it’s hard to go there.
Baba Amro is so close to my area and it’s in a bad situation. We keep trying to deliver some medical and life support but not all the time. We tried last week… The situation there is terrible. I saw that a lot of houses and shops were burned. One of them is [a] pharmacy [which] was giving free medicine to protesters.
Middle East Voices: Have you seen any members of the Free Syrian Army on the streets? What have you heard about them? Do you have any idea how many there are, how well organized and armed they are and whether they have been effective in the defense of civilians in Homs?
Sami: Recently I have seen a lot of them. Their number is increasing nowadays in Insha’t area. We in Homs keep hearing a lot of fighting between them [and security forces] especially at night when streets are empty. Sometimes, they attack the [nearby] security forces building which is one of the most important security buildings. It has been attacked by the FSA several times since the uprising began.
Middle East Voices: Do FSA troops escort the protesters? Are they there to protect you? Do they collaborate with protest organizers to be there from the start of the protests?
Sami: I can see them as I join the daily protests. Their work is basically two things. One, protect protests. Two, stop any invading forces to any area.
There is a real connection between the FSA and the protesters.
I think they don’t have a lot of support, especially money, because I see them eating simple food. But I think they have a good organization behind them. They know each others’ movements and they quickly come to the defense of people who are demonstrating.
There is a real connection between the FSA and the protesters. So, we tell them about any protest we want to stage and they tell us if it’s possible to do or not. We arrange a date and at that date we find FSA in that place to protect the protest. The FSA prevent Assad forces from shooting at us by attacking them on their way to us. When the protest ends, cars come to the area and pick them up.
They have special phones … to contact each other, and they also have soldiers inside the Assad army who are telling the Free Syria Army when Assad forces want to attack an area before it happens. So, sometimes they ask us to end a protest when they know that we may be in danger.
Assad forces are still attacking protesters but what a difference now that the Free Syrian Army delays them so that we can escape before they shoot us.Shops shut down in a Damascus suburb, December 2
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.