This dispatch was written by a freelance journalist in Syria whose name has been withheld for security reasons.
On an overcast Saturday afternoon in early May, a flash protest erupted in central Damascus. It was a national holiday, so schools and offices were closed, and the markets were crowded. Sticky children lapped dripping ice cream cones, stylish teenagers snapped pictures of each other on their iPhones, and families walked and shopped among the street vendors selling lace garters, toy helicopters, and smuggled cigarettes. In the seeping lawlessness of the new Syria, a state failing and floundering and increasingly beyond any control, the formerly orderly lanes of the sprawling Hamadiyeh market were chaotic. Though always busy, the main path through the market used to be clear for pedestrian traffic, and commerce happened at the tiny stalls along the edges. Not now. On this afternoon, illegal salesman, many of them internal refugees from the violence, had set up tables and overturned cardboard boxes in every cranny and were peddling anything they could find, from half-used batteries to outdated, threadbare suits.
But suddenly, amid the tourists, shoppers, hawkers, and families, a small, serious-looking crowd began to form. They gathered swiftly beside the Salahadeen sculpture, just outside the market entrance, and they filtered out across the main boulevard. They held hands, linked arms, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, forming a human chain that stretched across the road and stopped several jumbled lanes of traffic. Before the halted cars they raised their hand-drawn signs in red paint on white canvas.
The slogans, mostly in Arabic, some in English, read: "Our revolution is peaceful" and "We just want freedom." In response to the regime's persistent casting of all revolutionaries as terrorists, other banners read "Are doctors terrorists?" and "Dignity, equality, law—are these terrorism?" The twenty or thirty demonstrators were silent. They were mostly young people, some were even teenagers, wearing Converse sneakers and thin-legged jeans that rode low on their hips. The majority were women, a few of whom wore headscarves, while others sported shaved scalps and dreadlocks. Among them, I recognized Alawites, Sunni, and Druze.
For the first few moments, nobody moved. The heaving, vigorous crowd of shoppers in the markets simply stood still. Drivers gazed straight ahead through their windshields. A few taxis beeped their horns. Finally, a traffic officer rushed over and quietly ushered the protestors across the street. They gathered on the median strip and while traffic resumed around them, they directed their signs toward the Justice Palace, Syria's infamously arbitrary and opaque law courts.
The onlookers—shopkeepers and customers, adults and children—drifted across the street, too. Many lifted phones and cameras to record the demonstration. Fathers propped daughters on their shoulders to catch a glimpse. A few young girls in the audience applauded. One teenage street vendor, most likely illiterate, demanded in a thick provincial accent that someone read him the signs. No one spoke above a whisper. No one rushed away. No one shouted at the activists or tried to accost them. No one chanted for President Bashar Al Assad, as often happened during the first Damascus pro-democracy protests in 2011, when demonstrators would be quickly surrounded by security and whisked off to prison. For a few minutes, on that inconspicuous weekend in early May, that corner of Damascus belonged to the revolution.
And then the demonstrators were gone. They simply melted into the thick, anonymous crowd. A few minutes later, gaggles of heavyset baton-brandishing shabiha militia thugs hastened down the main avenue toward the now vacant protest site. They wore camouflage trousers with tight T-shirts depicting President Assad's face encircled by a heart. They found nothing but the usual festive holiday crowds.
The following week, on another government holiday, another flash demonstration took place. The second protest was even briefer and bolder than the first. Between the Central Bank and the famous Sham Palace Hotel, beside several police and army branch offices and the military's Officer's Club, the demonstrators stood in the center roundabout of Muhafiza Square. Amid bright, plastic posters featuring the heavily airbrushed candidates for the phony upcoming parliamentary elections, they silently brandished their banners for freedom before a gaping, transfixed public.
At the second protest, there were no crowds in which to disappear. When the demonstrators received text messages from scouts posted off the main square's side streets, the activists took off running down nearby alleys. A few blocks later, they were once again indistinguishable pedestrians—urban, young, well-dressed—bustling about Damascus' central business district. The protest began at 3:00 p.m. It was over by 3:05. By 3:15, a shiny, flat-bed pickup truck careened past, ferrying special forces fighters armed with rifles to the square. They were, once again, too late.