Ahmad is a student at the University of Damascus. We met last Friday during the demonstrations in the neighbourhood of Midan. Although worried about the fate of the revolution, he is still confident that ‘in 70 days the regime will fall’. He wants me to meet someone whose family has witnessed the hell of Dara’a, the epicentre of the protests, which has been under military siege since 25 April.
Omar is a lawyer who lives in the suburbs of Damascus. When he was a judge (before being downgraded because of his refusal to set free some criminals with high-placed acquaintances), he used to work really close to Dara’a’s security chief Atef Najib.
Omar’s wife and two of his kids are still in Dara’a. According to the Syrian authorities, the army withdrew from Dara’a on 5 May, but Omar assures me that the tanks are still surrounding the city – they just changed their strategy, occupying some of the surrounding villages.
Dara’a was already suffering from a series of political and economic grievances, but the last straw unleashing popular rage was the arrest of a group of kids for writing anti-government graffiti back in March. Omar remembers that episode very well. As the kids were detained, their fingernails were removed; their fathers, demanding their release, were told by the head of security forces in Dara’a, Atef Najib, to forget about it. Najib offered himself to impregnate their wives to have new children.
During Omar’s interview with Imam Shaykh Ahmad Sayasna of the Omari mosque in Dara’a, the religious leader clearly complained about the way Dara’a’s needs have been totally ignored by the regime. During the siege, the situation has deteriorated to pure sectarian violence.
Omar recalls the brutal killing of his brother-in-law. ‘It was 6am. He went down to the computer repair shop, where he used to work. He wanted to lock up the shop to avoid thefts. You see, in those days the army and the mukhabarat were looting people’s houses, stealing everything in gold they could find. The army entered the shop. They asked him his name. Hamza, he said. Hamza is a typical Sunni name, so they shot him in the head, cut his limbs and burned the body.’
The owner of the shop was hiding in the upper floor; he witnessed the whole scene. Because of the curfew imposed on the city, the shreds of Hamza’s body were handed over to his family only 10 days later. While pointing at the corpse, a general told the family: ‘You want freedom? Here’s your freedom.’
Omar might go to Dara’a in the coming days but, like all of the city’s inhabitants, he will be forced to stay at home for fear of being hit by snipers who don’t even spare children. ‘A child went into the streets and got shot in the leg by a sniper. The child’s father rushed to protect him with his body and the sniper immediately killed him. Then the sniper descended from the rooftop, removed the father’s body and killed the child.’
The families of the murdered are denied a proper funeral. In order to prevent further demonstrations, the army limited the number of people allowed to attend the procession to six. Moreover, not all families are allowed to receive the bodies of their dead relatives: Omar explains me how they are firstly obliged to sign a declaration which acquits the army from any responsibility for the massacres committed by ‘armed terrorist groups’.
Omar says that in the period of the ‘official’ siege, from 25 April to 5 May, most of the men and boys of Dara’a have been killed. However, the death toll shown on the national TV channels was reduced – the army had removed most of the corpses from the streets. Around 10 bodies were left to be seen by the cameras; many others had been eaten by dogs. For the same purpose of showing a sanitized version of the truth, the troops have been ordered to rebuild the most damaged areas. Afterwards, Alawi families have been gathered in Dara’a, dressed up in traditional Hourani clothes so that the national media could broadcast their women and kids throwing flowers on the tanks, thereby backing the official version of a military intervention requested by the civilians.
But who killed members of the security forces? The so-called Salafis, who are blamed by the government for scattering chaos across the country, according to Omar, are usually Alawis who grew their beards and dressed up like Sunni fundamentalists. ‘It is enough that they raise their hands to spot their tattoos portraying Bashar al-Assad and [the cousin of the prophet] Ali,’ Omar points out. On the other hand, he admits that some of the demonstrators opened fire on the army, but says they were only reacting to the ongoing massacre.
A rally of some 4,000 people departed from one of the surrounding villages to bring food supplies to Dara’a. At the second checkpoint, the soldiers shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is the greatest), so people expected them to be merciful. On the contrary, the outcome was another massacre. Omar confirms that after this episode, the protesters seized some weapons to raise them against the army.
The choice of armed resistance is a difficult one, considering the military imbalance between the protesters and the regime. But people are frustrated.
This piece was written in Damascus on 12 May 2011. Nates Recoias is a pseudonym.