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.