I have spent the last two weeks in Damascus and its suburbs, and I have seen the Syrian regime’s brutality and oppression with my own eyes.
Central Damascus is strictly controlled by the regime’s security forces. The city’s central roads and squares are filled with police, and there is a heavy security presence. There are a lot of armed security vehicles, blocked roads and heavily protected military complexes throughout the city.
The biggest hotel in Damascus, the Four Seasons, was also one of the emptiest places I saw.
Throughout our long conversations with the managers there, I learned that the hotel has had to fire more than two thirds of its 650 workers and close two of its three high-end restaurants since the revolution began 10 months ago.
Police at the security checkpoints are looking for suspicious-looking people to arrest, both entering and leaving Damascus. On my third day, I was able to get out of the city by taking extreme care to avoid the security’s watchful eyes. Outside Damascus is a completely different story. Only a 20-minute drive brings one to places that are filled with rebels’ revolutionary flags, placards insulting Bashar al-Assad, and graffiti everywhere.
Most, if not all suburbs, are holding “mudahara” protests every night. When I first witnessed a mudahara on Jan. 14, in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, the regime’s irregular forces, the “shabihas,” attacked unarmed protestors in front of my eyes. Two or three minutes into the demonstrations, when people began chanting “hurriyet,” or “freedom,” Kalashnikovs began shooting indiscriminately into the crowd.
My friends tried to protect me by hurrying me into a car, but it was too late for us to speed away from the scene. I saw shabihas dragging one protestor, shot seconds before, into their car. I saw several others arrested and given heavy beatings. A shabiha in his mid-40s, with white hear and a clean-shaven face, let us go after our driver calmly explained that we were just passing through and had been stopped by the protestors.
This was a lifetime’s experience for me, but something protestors in Syria are going through every day.
During my stay I visited countless families who had lost their sons; saw orphaned little children who still didn’t know what happened to their fathers, uncles and relatives. The regime’s security forces sometimes randomly kill people simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But the misery doesn’t end there.
The regime’s security forces systematically arrest all the relatives of a person they just killed in order to silence them. I have heard of many arrested and tortured just because their last names are the same as somebody killed by the security forces. The al-Assad regime clearly demonstrated to me its skills in terrorizing its people.
I visited more than half a dozen different Free Syrian Army (FSA) branches in various cities and the FSA appeared much stronger than anyone described before. Except for central Damascus, every city has its own FSA organization. Some of them were recently formed and are growing fast, others are already taking over the streets during the evenings. They establish their own checkpoints in these ghettos to protect the protesters. I heard over and over again from people on the ground that their only hope is for the FSA to succeed.
Judging from the many FSA leaders and soldiers I talked to, it is clear how determined they are against the Assad regime. Despite all odds, Syrians I talked to, especially in the Rif Dimashq province, are determined more than ever to overthrow this regime. It is up to other governments to be part of this revolution.