Sunday, September 4, 2011

Syria's Sons of No One


The New York Times

August 31, 2011

Syria’s Sons of No One


It was past 11 a.m., and Abdullah was finally waking up. The night before had gone late, he and his friends challenging and daring and fleeing from the feared mukhabarat, Syria’s secret police, who for the past five months have been bent on crushing dissent here in Homs. With a few hours of sleep behind him, Abdullah rolled off his mattress and began tapping out details of their exploits on his laptop. The clashes had been fierce and lasted hours, past the muezzin’s call to prayer at dawn. “We won’t bow to anyone but God,” the protesters declared. The mukhabarat replied with tear gas, buckshot and bullets. “Hot” was how Abdullah described it as he typed.

As safe houses go, the room he slept in was lavish. A wide-screen television shared space on the wall with framed Koranic verses, rendered in sloping gold script. The hot wind of the Syrian summer billowed the thick drapes like sails in a storm. There was a mattress for each of the four men, all in their 20s, who slept surrounded by their smartphones and laptops and satellite phones and speakers.

Abdullah, a 26-year-old computer engineer and pious Muslim, is a wanted man. He joined the first protest in Homs in March, and since then he has emerged as one of the dozen or so leaders of the youth resistance. His savvy with technology has made him a target for the police, and this was the fifth place he had slept in in less than a week. He hadn’t been to his family’s home in two months. Around his neck he wore a tiny toy penguin that was actually a thumb drive, which he treated like a talisman, occasionally squeezing it to make sure it was still there. I sat next to him on the mattress and watched as he traded messages with other activists on Skype, then updated a Facebook page that serves as an underground newspaper, then marked a Google Earth map of Homs with the spots of the latest unrest. “If there’s no Internet,” Abdullah said, “there’s no life.”

The other young men in the room began to stir. Abdullah’s friend Iyad (last names of the activists will not be used, in order to protect their identities), brought in tea and emptied ashtrays. They all soon started talking with an excitement that belied the danger to which they have grown accustomed. By day, a measure of normal life unfolds in Homs: stores and government offices are open, and people go about their business. Checkpoints have proliferated, though, and the most active youth try to stay off the streets, worrying that they are easier to identity in the daylight. By night, they gather in scores, sometimes in the hundreds, in open defiance of the regime. In Iyad’s living room, they bragged about spreading nails in the streets to flatten the tires of security-force vehicles and described to me how they load onions into plastic pipes and fire them by igniting hair spray. When security forces surged toward one of their comrades, they shouted to him: “You’ve got 20 guys around you! Blow yourself up!”

“They just fled,” Abdullah said, smiling as he recalled the security forces retreating in fear from the imaginary explosives.

The Syrian uprising began in mid-March in the hardscrabble town of Dara’a, about 160 miles from here, after 15 teenagers were arrested for writing antigovernment graffiti on school walls. The teens were reportedly beaten, and some of them had their fingernails pulled out. Their mothers were threatened with rape. The revolt spread quickly from Dara’a throughout the country and has become the most violent in the Arab uprising, rivaled only by Libya, but Libya was a civil war. More than 2,200 Syrians have been killed and thousands more arrested in the relentless government crackdown. Protests after Friday prayers have become ritual, and in response to them the military and security forces have assaulted many of Syria’s largest cities — Latakia, Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour and, of course, Dara’a — the violence so pronounced that the United States and European countries have demanded President Bashar al-Assad end his 11-year reign.

Iyad, a young father who named his newborn daughter after Dara’a, showed off a bandaged right knee that was grazed by a bullet. Abdullah pulled up a picture on his computer of one of Homs’s first martyrs, a 19-year-old named Amjad Zantah, who was killed during the government’s attempts to crush the earliest protests in the city. I’d been covering the uprising since its beginning, but the question that still eluded me was how the Syrian youth — the shabab — keep fighting in the face of such withering violence. How can laptops and cellphones and bags of nails and pipes that shoot onions be any match for one of the Arab world’s most fearsome police states? And how can an eclectic array of leftists, liberals, conservatives, nationalists, Islamists (themselves diverse) and the disgruntled and downtrodden prove unified enough to bring it down?

Tunisia won, Egypt won, and we’re going to win ourselves,” Abdullah said when I asked him about the odds they were up against. “There’s no going back.”

His words reminded me of an anecdote from Islamic history known by all these youths, schooled as they were in a country that celebrates a glorified Arab past as state propaganda. In the eighth century, the Muslim general Tariq bin Ziyad led his troops to Gibraltar, then burned his own army’s ships after the soldiers disembarked. “Oh, my warriors, where will you flee?” he asked them. “Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy.” Abdullah and the others understood the story’s meaning. “We know the Syrian revolution is here,” Iyad said, pointing to his sinewy biceps. “It’s up to us.”

Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, seized power in 1970, ending a volatile chapter of Syrian history that saw dozens of attempted coups over more than 20 years. He modernized infrastructure and brought education to the poor and rural communities that represented his base. Agrarian reforms begun by his predecessors had transformed the countryside, and the Sunni Muslim majority in places like Hama and Homs still deeply resents the loss of vast landholdings. Hafez also introduced a suffocating cult of personality and nurtured a paralyzing fear among Syria’s varied sects, with power now wielded disproportionately by the Alawite Muslim minority from which he hailed. Bashar was his father’s second choice as a successor (his oldest brother, Basil, died in a car accident in 1994), but he has hewn to his father’s practices. Through its long reign, the House of Assad has preached a broader identity for the country — an Arab nationalism that could encompass Alawites, Sunnis, Christians and other heterodox sects like Druze and Ismailis. But in reality, the Assads have pitted those sects against one another.

The fear of what’s next — what would follow the collapse of the government — is more pronounced in Syria than anywhere else in the Arab world, and Syrian officials cling to a kind of negative legitimacy: us or chaos. The precedents are sobering. Lebanon, the victim of a 15-year-civil war, fed in part by sectarian diversity, sits to Syria’s west. Iraq, still recovering from the carnage of its fratricidal conflict, borders Syria on the east. As cynical as the argument is, it remains compelling to many within Syria and to the countries who have a say here — the United States, its European allies, Saudi Arabia and, perhaps most important, Turkey, which shares a 550-mile border with its Arab neighbor. No one really knows what might arise from the embers of the House of Assad.

Since the uprising began, the government has allowed very few journalists into the country. On July 16, a few days before the morning spent at the safe house in Homs, I traveled with a photographer, Moises Saman, to the Lebanese town of Wadi Khaled, a backwater on the border where armed Islamists, smugglers and Syrian rebels mix freely. The trip took days to organize, as contacts called contacts, no one giving his real name. Since we had no visas, they would have to ferry us across a porous border stitched by roads, motorcycle paths and foot trails.

Iyad met us for the first time in Wadi Khaled, accompanied by a friend named Ahmed, who came from a family of smugglers. Iyad wore a beard favored by religious conservatives and had a quick wit and youthful smile. Until a few days before, he had worn his black hair long, but after security forces began inquiring about “Abu Shaar” — the guy with the long hair — his cousin persuaded him to cut it. As we sat in a house rented by Syrian refugees, displaced by violence across the border in Tel Kalakh, he and Ahmed detailed the route we would take to skirt checkpoints and soldiers.

They called us Zingo and Ringo, nicknames taken from an old cartoon, and together we rode on Suzuki motorcycles through the mountainous terrain, over a 20-foot-high dirt berm that marks the border, then along a vast plain traversed by other smugglers carrying contraband fuel, cigarettes and anything else that can wrangle a profit from imbalances in Syrian subsidies and Lebanese taxes. Every so often, we shed more of our belongings: first our computers and equipment (too suspicious), then our backpacks (too foreign-looking), then our clothes and toiletries (too cumbersome). At the first safe house across the border — a simple one-story affair where Ahmed lived — I was left with three notebooks and a pen. Everyone had grown nervous, but as we sat on plastic mats on the floor, sharing soft drinks, tea and coffee, the conversation began to put us at ease. This was the first time since covering the uprising that I had talked to one of the youthful protesters in person. With visas so rare, and granted only under strict conditions, most journalists have covered Syria by frustratingly brief phone calls.

For many years, Syria’s cities have been myopic in their rivalries. Dara’a was considered backward, populated by the hillbillies of the steppe known as the Houran. Deir al-Zour was the preserve of armed tribesmen, bound by the ties of extended clans. Homs, favored by the government, competed with Hama, long officially discriminated against for its history of rebellion and its religious cast. Decades after independence, Damascus and Aleppo still vied for supremacy in the country. But now protests arise regularly in one town out of solidarity with another under siege. “Dara’a and all the villages around it have a special place in our heart,” Iyad said as he dragged on a Marlboro Light. “This is where the revolution began, and it is a place that offered up so many martyrs for us. Dara’a taught us that even if the army assaults you, you can still rise up again.” It was afternoon, and he and Ahmed were anxious for us to move to another safe house before too much time passed. As we prepared to leave, Iyad turned to me and said: “We’ve already won. We’re victorious now. I lived a life of terror, fear and killing, and now I’m free.”

Before the uprising, Iyad said, his life had been boring, even suffocating. He had a degree in business and economics, but jobs were scarce. The incentive to revolt was more ambiguous, though; he’d had enough of the humiliations, the propaganda, the hypocrisy, and now, finally, he could do something about it. No one encouraged him to go down to the first protest in Homs in March at the Khalid bin Walid mosque. No one had to. “I’m a person now,” he said. “I can say what I want. I love you if I want to love you, I hate you if I want to hate you. I can denounce your beliefs, or I can support them. I can agree with your position or disagree with it.” We shed the last of our belongings for another ride. “We’re not waiting to live our lives until after the fall of the regime,” he went on. “We started living them the first day of the protests. We began our lives.”

At the next safe house, we were met by Iyad’s cousin, a burly, bearded man who said he served in the Republican Guard with a younger Bashar al-Assad in the 1990s. Iyad and his cousin drove us to Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, which in less unusual times is 40 minutes from the border. The drive took us six hours. The landscape along the Assi River was as picturesque as anywhere in the Middle East, but I could tell that both men were nervous about military patrols. “I don’t know what I’ll do if we get stopped,” Iyad’s cousin said.

They parted with us in Homs, where another man waited to drive us to Hama, a scarred city that this summer drew hundreds of thousands into the streets in the country’s largest protests. We arrived in Hama at dusk, passing tanks parked at checkpoints that seemed not to be stopping anyone. The security forces and military had withdrawn from the city after an especially bloody day in June, when they killed at least 73 people, but no one expected them to stay gone for long. To block their return, protesters had set up barricades throughout the city. Most were unimpressive: a pile of lampposts, windowsills, iron railing and stones from sidewalks and walls. Some were more formidable, built with charred Dumpsters, sandbags and cinderblocks, even bulldozers and incinerated buses.

In February 1982, Hama was the last bastion of an Islamist revolt that had posed the greatest threat to the elder Assad’s rule. After a clash between insurgents and soldiers on Feb. 3, Islamists tried to wrest control of the city, attacking police stations, seizing armories and assassinating local leaders of the ruling Baath Party. The response was swift. After demanding the city surrender, Assad sent planes to bomb the historic quarter and tanks to plow through Hama’s narrow streets. Artillery pummeled the city in a scorched-earth campaign, and the fighting and ensuing hunt for insurgents and sympathizers lasted more than three weeks. No one really knows how many died; 10,000 is a number often cited. The suffering from that time still resonates in Syria; in my time there, I heard story after story of disappearances and mass executions that made real the slogan scrawled on the city’s walls: “Hama Is the Graveyard of the Nation.”

A little before 10 p.m., we watched a group of protesters gather and head toward the governor’s building. A 23-year-old named Obada approached me as if we were old friends. “I’m an activist!” he cried. Obada lacked the smoldering anger that I encountered among others in Hama who lived through 1982, though he shared the sentiments. “We can’t return,” he said as we walked together toward his car, a white BMW. We were soon joined by two other activists, and by 11 p.m. we were cruising through the city, the cellphones of the youths ringing every minute or so. Someone had deposited a long-haired white Persian cat in the back of the car, but no one paid attention to it. They were focused on the rumors that each phone call brought from somewhere else in the city of 800,000: that four buses of security forces and dreaded paramilitaries were entering the outskirts; that soldiers had attacked the barricades; that more people were being arrested.

“Set up checkpoints!” one of the passengers shouted into his phone.

“No, no, nothing’s happening,” Obada yelled back.

“They’re all lies, 100 percent,” another chimed in.

In a few minutes we were at the house of a tall man just freed from 15 days of custody. He had spent half of it by himself in a windowless cell that was only six feet high, where he could only kneel or sit. “I didn’t see the day, and I didn’t see the night,” he told me. He said he was interrogated every day, usually with the same questions: Who was organizing the protests? Which businessmen were giving them money? Who was smuggling out videos and pictures of the demonstrations? And who were the men welcoming Robert Ford, the American ambassador, when he unexpectedly visited the city in July? As I left the house, really a hut, I asked him whether he would protest again. He flashed me a V-for-victory sign, and Obada chimed in, “Victory or death.”

We ended the night in a basement that felt part safe house, part dorm room, where, before the revolution, Obada and his friends could smoke a water pipe out of sight of their parents. They were all in their 20s, including a sales manager who had come home from Saudi Arabia to take part in the moment. Headphones and stacks of CDs and sound-mixing equipment were scattered around the room. It was after midnight, and the television was tuned to the BBC. Some of them huddled around a Hewlett-Packard computer, listening to songs whose lyrics they belted out at the Friday protests: “Damn you, Hafez, for such malicious offspring/Syria wants freedom, Syria wants freedom./Leave us alone, Bashar./You have trampled the Syrian land/Syria wants freedom, Syria wants freedom.”

Over 40 years of dictatorship, the Assads cauterized any expression of dissent, enforcing silence, and most prominent dissidents have spent years in places like Tadmur, a notorious regime dungeon. One of them, Riad Turk, a veteran communist imprisoned for nearly two decades, once told me he endured his isolation only by accepting that his life outside had come to an end. He spent day after day fashioning landscapes on a cement floor with pieces of discolored rice that he had removed from his meals and let dry. At the end of the day, he swept the scene away and began a new one in the morning. Yet after the security forces withdrew in June, Hama’s citizens began to tentatively speak for themselves. The educated elite — doctors, engineers, lawyers — communicated with a 60-year-old cleric, Mustafa Abdel-Rahman, who heads a prominent mosque. Sheik Mustafa, in turn, negotiated with the governor, who answers to Assad. It was a remarkable development, perhaps the first time in decades in Syria that the exercise of power was a dialogue.

No one really talked to the youth, though. Not that it mattered to Obada and his friends. They had no faith in their elders, either. “What controls Hama now is the shabab,” Obada said. “We’ve forgotten our disagreements until we get rid of this regime.”

They imposed their own 10 p.m. curfew on the town. They figured out ways to deliver bread to the checkpoints they manned on their own, in daytime and nighttime shifts. Obada fed raw footage to Al Jazeera. His friends made YouTube videos that became, by Syria’s standards, Internet sensations. “Come On Bashar, Leave,” was the most famous. They even started cleaning the streets. “We had to,” Obada said as his friends fired up the water pipes. “The smell was killing us.”

It was 1 a.m., and Obada’s cellphone rang again. Another protest had convened in Assi Square, prompted by the simple fact that it could happen. The other day, Obada told me, youths had organized five demonstrations in a single day. He smiled. “We just wanted the chance to start,” he said.

Moises, the photographer, and I returned to Homs the next day, arriving at Iyad’s father’s house, where Abdullah and his friends were sleeping after their “hot” night. We had planned to leave from there for the border, then head back to Lebanon. But soon after we arrived, Iyad told us that villagers along the border had been killed the night before in what looked like sectarian vendettas. No Sunni dared go through an Alawite village, and vice-versa. Since the smuggling routes that would take us back to Lebanon snaked through those villages, we were stuck, at least for a while.

We sat for hours, talking and drinking tea, and it soon became clear that the other youths treated Abdullah, the computer engineer, with deference. Like the others, Abdullah seemed courageous, but he didn’t share their youthful bravado. His religious faith was formidable, the kind that doesn’t compromise before authority or custom or age.

“For the old people, the terror is still there, in a way we can’t imagine anymore,” he said. “Even the children were nursed at their mother’s breast with fear.” Others listened respectfully, including an older relative of Iyad’s who told me he had a doctorate. “The Syrian revolution is an orphan,” Abdullah went on. “It has no father and no mother.” It had only them, he suggested.

Abdullah estimated that 100 people in Homs were directing the protests, which had now become better organized. The youth would sometimes wear armbands designating a task: breaking up fights among one another, cleaning up the streets after they were finished and delivering food to demonstrators. There was even a health committee to treat the wounded. No one dared to go to hospitals anymore, Abdullah explained, fearful that security forces would arrest them or do worse. Iyad swore by rumors that agents had executed the injured, in their hospital beds, by injecting air into people’s hearts or shooting them in the head and blaming it on crossfire. So in past weeks, the youths had set up one-room clinics in their neighborhoods, where the wounded were treated. “There are 10 people who think and 100 who act, but the security forces can never figure out which is which,” Abdullah told me. “Now we’ve managed to build a state of organized chaos.”

Iyad brought coffee out, and they told me the lessons they had learned in the past few months. Everyone knew not to talk on satellite phones for more than 12 minutes, for fear of surveillance. Afterward, you had to remove the SIM card for 20 minutes. If you used it as a modem, you had to limit your time on the Internet to five hours. Abdullah said he was setting up more correspondents in each neighborhood to help him update the “Newsroom of the Homs Revolutionaries,” his Facebook portal. In coming weeks he planned to begin a small newscast, interviewing witnesses in Homs and bringing in analysts to discuss the day’s events, by way of Skype.

In the background, Iyad’s brother played a video game called Star Racing, and the rest of the guys, all of them wearing the track suits they slept in, fiddled with their equipment: Nokias, HTCs, BlackBerries and iPhones, “all from abroad,” as Iyad put it.

A little later, a young man named Ziyad came in. He was picked up that morning at a checkpoint. “ ‘I didn’t do anything,’ ” Ziyad recounted telling the security forces. “ ‘I know my page is white. I’m with the regime. I don’t protest.’ ”

“See,” Iyad said, “he knew they were arbitrary detentions.” He explained that the new tactic was to act innocent when arrested — don’t beg for mercy, don’t say you have children, don’t plead for kindness. Stay quiet.

Ziyad described how the security forces beat several of the detainees in the minivans that hauled them to police headquarters. “ ‘So, you want freedom?’ ” he recalled them shouting at the dozen or so detainees, who cowered from blows. “ ‘Here, take it!’ ”

Ziyad was released four hours later, and though everyone celebrated his arrival, complimenting him on staying cool under pressure, I sensed Abdullah was a little suspicious that he had been released so soon, perhaps because he had agreed to inform on them.

That night, Iyad and Abdullah took us to a house in a village of less than 100 people, nestled in an olive grove. They said it was for our safety, but I knew our presence was making them nervous. I fell asleep as we watched “Rambo,” then woke up at 3 a.m. to see Abdullah typing intensely on his computer as he sat in bed.

Abdullah came across the way a Bolshevik might have before the Russian Revolution was decided. Not in ideology, but in the single-minded­ness of revolt. In a family of seven, the third-oldest of the five boys, he said he stood out. “ ‘Don’t harm people, stay polite, if someone is good to you, be better to him,’ ” he quoted his father saying. He mentioned it with disdain. “These principles, they thought, were enough to solve life’s problems.” In high school, he fought with a Christian teacher whom he accused of disparaging Islam. At Tishreen University in the coastal city of Latakia, he tangled with faculty in an attempt to secure more power to students in decision making. “ ‘Where do you think you’re living?’ ” he recalled one of the professors there asking him.

Abdullah represents what the government insists it is fighting. He is a Salafist, an adherent to a puritanical Islam, though he disavows the term. To him, Salafists bear arms, and he understands that the moment he and others fire a bullet in Homs or anywhere else, the regime will have the justification it covets to crush them with even more force. But there was no question of his devotion to a state that adheres to Islam as its foundation, and he dismissed the comparatively liberal rhetoric of some Islamic activists, like the Muslim Brotherhood. “They want to satisfy the West, and they don’t want to satisfy Muslims,” he told me the next morning. “They say, ‘We’re a modern Islam.’ But there’s no such thing as modern Islam. There’s Islam, and there’s secularism.”

We debated the imposition of religious law and whether Christians and Muslims could intermarry. For the first time since I met him, Abdullah grew angry at me, when I suggested that no Christian or Alawite would subscribe to his vision of the state he would build in the wake of the revolution. He quickly cooled, aware that he shouldn’t show his emotions. At one point, he even suggested that however he might feel, however draconian he believed religious law should be, he was still a minority in the opposition.

As much as the activists here talk of unity in the face of government oppression, I often felt as I did in Iraq in those early months after the American invasion in 2003. The more people denied their differences, the more apparent they became. For Iyad, Abdullah and others, there was deep anger at Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement that has baldly supported the Syrian regime. That anger had spilled into chauvinism against Shiite Muslims, intensifying the hostility they already felt for Alawites. They understood the importance of nonviolence, but even Abdullah admitted that if Assad fell, sectarian vendettas would erupt in the countryside. One of the young men warned darkly that events “were headed toward violence.”

They could sense my unease, and they tried to reassure me. “All the revolutionaries know that it’s not in their interests to make trouble with the minorities,” Iyad said as we got ready to leave for the border. “The minorities having faith in us, us as the majority, is crucial if we want to bring down this regime. We have to make sure the minorities feel safe.”

I asked them how they would do that, and Abdullah politely cut me off. All this talk, he said, was a distraction from the task at hand — toppling the regime. The society wasn’t ready to envision something else; the regime’s triumph had been to impoverish imagination.

“Until now, we’re in a huge prison,” Abdullah said. “For 50 years, this society has been closed. Do you think there are people having conversations with the intellectuals? Do you think there’s freedom of expression? Ideas for politics?” He continued: “How do I ask someone who was sitting in prison all his life, with all the windows closed, about these things? All he knows how to do is cry and say, ‘Oh, God!’ when someone beats him.” He drew the metaphor out further. The prisoner was banging on the wall, clanging on the door, and the West, even amid all this tumult, was asking what it meant. “Do you want an Islamic state or a civil state?” he said. “What does it even mean? The prisoner just wants to get out.”

Iyad offered, “There is a volcano here.”

Abdullah nodded in agreement. “The people don’t know what they want, other than freedom,” he said. “They want to get rid of this ruler, stop the corruption, end the bribes and no longer have to live under repression and the security forces. Let’s get rid of this ruler, then we can build institutions, then we can build parties, we can build awareness, and then we can figure out exactly what we want. Under the bullets, we can’t talk about the future.”

As we finally left, climbing aboard the motorcycles and heading for the border, Iyad’s light-heartedness turned serious, and for the first time since I met him I heard fear, even desperation, in his voice. “There’s no going back,” he told me. “We have to get rid of him, all of them. If we don’t get rid of them, they’re going to come back at us with everything they have.”

Anthony Shadid ( is a correspondent for The Times based in Beirut. He won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2004 and 2010.

Editor: Joel Lovell (

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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