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SPIEGEL ONLINE

08/24/2011 08:27 AM

Syria's Bloody Ramadan

Running from the Ghosts of Damascus

The violence has been brutal and casualties continue to mount as the regime of Bashar al-Assad tries to put a stop to anti-government protests. But despite the dangers, demonstrators are taking to the streets across the country. And they vow to continue until they get a taste of freedom. By SPIEGEL Staff

Every evening, the "ghosts" come. They laugh, chew nuts and heft their clubs. That's truly what they're called, shabiha, or "ghosts." In reality, they're the regime's thugs, thousands of men who swarm out after the daily fast is broken to take up their posts outside the mosques of Damascus. At 10 p.m., when evening prayers end, they're already waiting in front of the gates, armed and lurking threateningly between parked cars, ready to cut down anyone who dares to speak out against the president or the system.

The faithful leave the mosques quickly and quietly, each person alone, disappearing into the crowds on the festively illuminated streets that don't come fully to life during the fasting month of Ramadan until after dark.

There's a haunting suspense in the air, and it's hard to say which is more uncanny -- the normalcy, or the lightning quick arrival of fear among the people strolling on Salhiya Street. That fear often comes in the form of a white station wagon pulling up to the police station, where two men in plainclothes drag a bound, screaming prisoner inside, then drive away, as everyone else simply looks on.

To hear the country's rulers tell it, it's nothing, just a conspiracy made up by Zionists, al-Qaida supporters and Arab satellite broadcasters. The rumor that a little girl was killed in the harbor town of Latakia? It was only a heart attack. What about the thousands of people demonstrating months ago in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan? No, they only gathered to offer a prayer of thanks after the rains finally arrived.

And indeed, a visitor to Damascus finds a city that appears, on the surface, unchanged and undisturbed. There are no tanks on the streets of downtown and no gunshots to be heard.

The Regime's Grotesque Horrors

Yet it only takes a 40-minute drive to arrive in a different world -- in Zabadani, a resort town in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, now surrounded by the army. Nearly every evening for weeks, groups ranging from 500 to 4,000 people have taken to the town's streets. First, the "ghosts" struck, then the police threw teargas, and now members of various "security services" are killing protestors. There are no more tourists in Zabadani. Merely preparing to travel there now takes two days.

The only way to reach one of the leaders of the local opposition committee is through an Internet service, using the identity of a friend shot dead weeks previously. The rendezvous point, not named until the last minute, is a vegetable truck at a certain intersection. The driver gives a brief nod, then leads the way through curving lanes to the edge of town, where the men from the committee wait in a vacation rental. The evening demonstration hasn't started yet and they talk about how inconceivable it was in the beginning, that people in Syria would summon the courage to rise up against a dictatorship that had killed tens of thousands. They talk about the fear of the informers who are everywhere, even within their own families, and of the regime's grotesque horrors.

Ali, the contact person, was arrested by the Political Security Directorate, one of the four largest among the country's alleged 17 secret services. "They had pictures of me at a demonstration," he says, "but they thought I was just one of the participants." That didn't stop Ali's captors from beating him into unconsciousness, hanging him from the ceiling, pouring cold water on him and torturing him with electric shocks. "You think God will help you?" Ali says one of the officers shouted. "God won't help you!"

'I Want to Live in Freedom'

They wanted Ali to name names. "So I told them names: of people who had just been arrested by the security forces, which they didn't know about."

He says another officer asked him, "Did we ever do anything to you?"

"No," Ali answered, "but I want to live in freedom."

"Do you even know what freedom is?"

"No," Ali said. Not yet.

Three weeks later, they let him go. "They needed the space. We were already 70 men in a cell measuring four by four meters (13 by 13 feet)." Another man here in the apartment was detained for 60 days, after he raised his middle fingers at the president at a demonstration. They broke both his fingers. He describes in front of all the others how they attached electrodes to his testicles, then ran electrical currents until he urinated blood. Those 60 days made him stronger, the man says now. Yet his hands shake when he pours the coffee.

Suddenly, a voice comes over the radio: "They're coming! In your direction. In a personnel carrier, armed, one, two, five, at least eight." Ducking low, Ali peers over the edge of the balcony. Men with AK-47s are already patrolling the far end of the street. "Go, go!" They hurriedly grab radios, bags and the expensive satellite telephone, making their way through gardens and darkness to another neighborhood. Other observers report in from all over town: Several hundred men have moved in and the staccato sound of machine guns can be heard.

It's the army, Ali explains, relieved. "They're just shooting into the air to spread fear." The individual shots of killers from the security services, he says, are more dangerous. Still, the evening demonstration is called off.

A Fragile Mixture

Every day, nearly everywhere in Syria, people are taking to the streets and demanding an end to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad -- from Daraa in the south to Latakia in the north, from Zabadani in the west to Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River. And in almost all of these places, they continue to do so peacefully -- not because they lack weapons, but because they know the regime is just waiting for an excuse to strike back. And that would mean the beginning of a civil war. The regime is already fueling this conflict by inciting the various religious denominations against one another and stylizing itself the protector of minorities against the Sunni fanatics it loves to evoke.

Since the unrest began in March, Western leaders have criticized the regime in Syria, but had avoided calling directly for Bashar Assad's resignation, fearing precisely the civil war of which the regime warns.

But last week, world leaders finally overcame that fear. "We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led," stated US President Barack Obama. "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside." Brussels, Berlin, Paris and London echoed the sentiment. But what might come after Assad remains an open question -- it remains unclear whether the UN, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would be able to agree on a common course of action. "Nothing about it will be easy," a high-ranking member of the US government warned in an interview with the New York Times.

Homs, Syria's third-largest city, is located in the middle of the country and reflects the country's fragile mixture of religious denominations. A slim majority of the city's residents are Sunni Muslims, around 20 percent are Alawis, a 10th are Orthodox Christian, with additional minorities of Zaidis and Yazidis. Almost 700 people have been killed in Homs since demonstrations started here on March 18, and hundreds more have been missing for months.

The Helplessness of Assad

"We're the ones who are still here," says Awad, a pseudonym, by way of introducing the neighborhood opposition committee. They are students and technicians, a textiles salesman and a student of the Koran. Soon, though, Awad says, the man is coming who does the most important work: filming. This allows the group to maintain contact with Al Jazeera. "Without video there's no revolution, we're nothing," Awad explains. "Then the world doesn't even know we exist at all."

Half an hour later, the doorbell rings, a password is given, and the cameraman and two friends come in, back from a "demonstration on the fly," as they call it. Two dozen demonstrators met at noon, rolling out banners and demanding an end to the regime.

"How long?" Awad asks.

"Ten minutes."

"Crazy!"

Nabil, as he wishes to be called, is a mild-mannered man in his mid-20s, with the well-trained legs of a sprinter. He's had a great deal of luck, so far. People all over the city call him when there's something to film. Now, he retrieves the hard drive, a film encyclopedia of horrors, from its hiding place. "We want to document what's happening," he says, and shows sequence after sequence from the past months. There are pictures from the sit-in on April 18, when security forces opened fire on the crowd. There are pictures of the bodies of people tortured to death: pharmaceuticals student Jamal al-Fatwa, teacher Khalid Murat and taxi driver Mumtaz Halu, whose body was found on the street at dawn.

Torn to Pieces

There are also pictures of the last minutes of their friend Adnan Abd al-Daim, a computer science student, who on August 1 held up a small banner that read, "Silmi! Silmi!", or "peacefully!", and, "Syria for all Syrians!" In the last minutes of his life, Daim can be seen from behind, still standing as others run away. After a fire truck with water cannons has passed by, he reemerges from behind a parked car and stands alone, holding his banner high. Then the shots ring out.

For two hours, Nabil plays dozens of videos, including images even Al Jazeera won't show, images of heads ripped off, bodies torn to pieces, severed feet, targeted gunshot wounds to the ears, eyes, forehead. There are pictures of severely injured people being given basic treatment at improvised medical stations, which the resistance uses because people are often abducted from hospitals. In one scene, armed men jump out of an ambulance. "Shabiha or security forces," Awad says. "That's happened so often, people are afraid to take the injured to the clinics anymore."

Sometimes in Homs, the government's thugs attack demonstrators. Sometimes security forces shoot into the crowd without warning, even using large-caliber machine guns. Proof of this can be seen in bullet casings, as big around as a person's thumb, picked up off the ground. It can also be seen in the effects on the bullets' targets, for example a man in one of Nabil's videos, with nothing left of his head but part of his lower jaw and a bit of skin hanging off his torso.

Sometimes nothing happens at all. That's the case this evening at the demonstration in the neighborhood of Hamra. In the beginning, there are perhaps 300 people gathered on the street. For 26 minutes, the growing crowd chants, the sound reverberating off the surrounding houses. No one knows what will happen from one minute to the next -- until it becomes clear why things have stayed so quiet here. In the nearby neighborhood of Bab Sabaa, security force units have stormed the Fatima Mosque and shot into the crowd of people praying there. Meanwhile, other troops opened fire on the nearby Rauda Mosque. Their contact at Birr Hospital calls, shouting into the telephone, "Don't come here! They're storming the hospital!"

'We're the Cattle'

Awad's knees are shaking so badly, he has to lie down. "Sometimes I wonder what I'll do tomorrow," he says, "and if maybe the dead aren't better off. But then, I don't want to die without having been free first. We've had to say that for 40 years, and I can't take it anymore. The Assads treat the whole country like it's their farm, and we're the cattle."

But even these resistance fighters aren't sure how to topple the regime. All of the "local coordination committees," the resistance's loosely connected network, want pressure from abroad, but no one wants a military intervention. Not even with nearly 2,000 dead, 15,000 arrested and perhaps hundreds more thought to be buried in mass graves. "This is only the beginning," Awad fears.

The regime is capturing city after city with its tanks and troops. It started with Hama on July 31, then continued with Deir ez-Zor, then Latakia, and now, since last week, tanks have been gathering on the outskirts of Homs.

Still, it's not so much the army that is spreading death and terror. For the regular troops, many of whom are conscripts doing their mandatory service, each city is a stress test.

Hundreds of dead soldiers have been turned over to their families with bullet wounds and no further details about their deaths. Another 1,000 or more have deserted. In Deir ez-Zor, a colonel is said to have defected together with some of his troops. The regime is growing increasingly concerned about its own army, says a soldier in Damascus. "Until five weeks ago, you only needed a military ID to pass through checkpoints anywhere in the country," the soldier explains. "Now you have to have a permit for each leg of the trip, or they'll suspect you as a deserter."

Burying the Dead in the Park

A decree has extended all conscripts' period of service by three months, but the regime's true backbone is the security forces and secret services, believed to employ up to 400,000 people in their network of terror units, all competing to torture and kill. Their creator, former President Hafez al-Assad, managed all members as far down as mid-ranking officers.

Now, though, the creator is dead, and there's no one to step into his role and keep control as the monster takes on a life of its own. Hafez's son Bashar, the current president, is described as simply following the whims of the generals, while his violence-loving younger brother Maher, official commander of the Republican Guard, would rather spend his time playing nighttime card games than military details. International pressure could lead to yet more violence.

According to those familiar with the situation, no one at the top has a plan as to how to address the uprising. In Hama, they say, where Hafez al-Assad had tens of thousands killed in 1982, a powerful colonel in the military security forces had dozens of demonstrators shot down in early June. Then, though, Defense Minister Ali Habib Mahmud and the governor of Hama managed to prevail, taking control out of the colonel's hands and withdrawing the troops.

For a few weeks, Hama was the first city where civilian leaders negotiated with the governor and maintained peace -- that is, until Assad removed the governor, promoted the colonel to general and sent him back to Hama in late July. Now the city is burying its dead in the parks.

"This system can't be reformed," says a former member of the Damascus elite that the generals alternately arrest and attempt to bribe. "It's not even a system. It's a mafia that draws its power from corruption and fear. Any kind of change will be its downfall. They'll do anything to keep from losing power, anything!"

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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