Syria’s Sons of No One
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
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
“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
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
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
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
The fear of what’s next — what would follow the collapse of the government — is more pronounced in
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
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
For many years,
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
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
They parted with us in
In February 1982,
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
“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
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,
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
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
It was 1 a.m., and Obada’s cellphone rang again. Another protest had convened in
Moises, the photographer, and I returned to
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
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
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
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
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a correspondent for The Times based in
Editor: Joel Lovell (j.lovell-MagGroup@nytimes.com)
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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