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and overturned cardboard boxes in every cranny and were peddling anything they could find, from half-used batteries to outdated, threadbare suits.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.
The significance of these recent demonstrations cannot be overstated. To stand in central Damascus, before the Justice Palace or beside the offices of the secret police, two of the most fearsome quarters in all of Syria, and challenge the regime is an unimaginable act of empowerment. It is, in itself, a revolution already won. Only 18 months ago, few would have dared to openly criticize the Assad regime, even to lament a failed crop or a flagrant act of corruption. Demonstrators now chant about Maher Al Assad, the president's brother and commander of the fearsome Fourth Armored Division and Republican Guard, a famously impetuous and violent man, "Maher, if you're so brave, why don't you go liberate the Golan?" Before the revolution, I'd never heard his name even whispered.
On Sunday, May 27, another demonstration sprouted in central Damascus. It followed the familiar formula: The peaceful, silent protestors emerged briefly on a busy intersection—this time Hamra Street, a major retail neighborhood—to announce their simple demands. They called for democracy, elections, and the ouster of Assad. But this time the security forces arrived almost immediately. Men in green military fatigues jumped from an unmarked sedan and began shooting rifles in the air. Chaos ensued, as shoppers screamed and ran. Most of the demonstrators fled too, though 12 were arrested that day. One of the activists, a young woman, was beaten so badly she was hospitalized.
As internal discontent grows and international pressure mounts, the Syrian regime seems increasingly desperate, reckless, and violent. The recent massacre in Houla, of over 100 civilians, including at least 49 children, took place despite the presence of 300 U.N. observers posted throughout the country. Houla was followed by three more massacres, in Assukar, Al-Qubeir, and Al-Haffe, all in the past month.
But no matter what happens now, no matter whether Assad falls this year or this decade, Syria is already irreversibly, fundamentally changed. Syrians have found their voice, and they will not surrender again into silence. Fathers in Deraa insist that they will happily die to secure the futures of their daughters and their sons, and if their children must die too for the next generation, then no sacrifice will be spared. As one Damascus activist explained, the freedom of joining a protest, of standing in the street and holding a reckless and untouchable regime accountable for the first time in generations, is a freedom no one will relinquish once they taste it.
New signs emerge every day now that the revolution is closing in on Damascus. A collapsing economy is delivering nothing but shortages and soaring prices, driving the discontented middle classes toward the revolution. Free Syrian Army checkpoints occasionally appear now on main highways, mere miles from the capital. The airport road, always of great symbolic and strategic importance, has at least twice fallen, if briefly, to the rebels. Bold assassinations of infamously cruel security chiefs are taking place in Damascus' nicest neighborhoods.
The regime no longer has the military capacity to crush the rebellion everywhere at once. They don't trust the troops enough to send them out without the supervision of certain loyalist divisions, and they don't have enough tanks to drive the rebel forces from all the cities, towns, and villages they control. When the northeastern city of Raqqa began to rebel this spring after security forces opened fire on a peaceful protest, all the local tanks were on loan to regime forces fighting to retake Deir Ezzor, 150 miles away, which had fallen already to the Free Syrian Army.
Syria is a young country. More than one-half of the population is under 25. And this new, most impressionable generation is being raised irreversibly on revolution. Their vocabulary, words like freedom and rights, is not that of their fathers. Their fairytales are stories of empowerment and courage, not the fables of fear that overshadowed Syria for decades. They will never forget these lessons, no matter how long or brutal the fight ahead.
This generation will know most intimately and unbearably the sufferings of revolution. Children and teenagers are being tortured and killed by regime forces and pro-Assad militias. Young men, some even boys, are fighting alongside their fathers and uncles in Homs and Deraa. Teenage girls join convoys of activists to deliver aid throughout the country. But even those youth spared the direct violence of war suffer its burdens. Schooling has been disrupted. In towns known for their revolutionary sympathies, government services, including vaccination campaigns, electricity, schooling, and garbage collection, have been suspended. Children share in all the suffering of their parents—the displacement, food and fuel shortages, uncertainty, and fear.
Ahmad, a former teacher, has established a makeshift school in his home for the 20 or 30 displaced children that now seek shelter with his family. Each day, before he leaves for work, he distributes the day's assignment to his cousins-cum-pupils. One day Ahmad was sitting with a young boy, 5 or 6 years old, on his lap. He asked the boy to sing him a song. The boy thought for a moment and then asked Ahmad whether he should sing a freedom song or a school song. "A school song," he told the boy. The child sat in silence. Finally he confessed, "I can't remember any school songs." Ahmad encouraged him to try, but the boy insisted. "Okay. The other kind," Ahmad conceded. And the boy began to sing. Songs of freedom and peace and democracy. He sang song after song and didn't stop until Ahmad finally told him it was time to go to sleep.
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