DAMASCUS EXPRESS: LIVING THE REVOLUTION IN SYRIA. Testimony

Yasmina Sabbagh

Résumé

Il y a quelques jours, j’ai reçu un appel de mon meilleur ami en Syrie qui participe activement et depuis le début à la contestation. Son témoignage, issu de cette conversation, est très instructif sur ce qui se passe à Damas. J’ai donc décidé de reprendre l’essentiel de son contenu et de le publier en exclusivité dans la Revue Averroès.

Abstract

A few days ago I received a phone call from my best friend in Syria who has been actively participating in the contestation since its beginning. I thought that what I learned during this conversation was a very fresh and interesting testimony about what is happening there. I give its main content in exclusivity for the Revue Averroès.

__________

I feel really happy and proud of being Syrian, whereas (you remember), I used to feel depressed and not to have any meaning in life. This is the best revolution I could ever have imagined. Demonstrating is like gambling, you get addicted once you get into it, you just can’t stop it! You become addicted to demonstrating. When you gamble you know that you can lose everything but you keep playing. Now, people are under fire or under siege but they keep going on the streets. Whatever happens you can’t stop. It’s better than speed, it’s better than any drug, it’s better than smuggling. I haven’t been demonstrating for the past 4 weeks because I am under house arrest, and I feel as if I couldn’t breathe. Now I need my dose of demonstration.

Nobody cares about anything but the revolution and the news, demonstrators and pro-Bashar alike. We can’t focus on anything else, the food doesn’t have any taste for me anymore. I used to have a girlfriend at the beginning of the year but now I can’t even imagine sitting next to her and spending time with her, all my attention goes to the revolution.

There are a lot of meetings going on, we are excited to do different things to help the revolution spread and sustain. You can’t imagine how we feel; each of us is now a demonstrator, or a film-maker, or a reporter, or a journalist, or a smuggler of information. Before we used to be nothing and spend our days at the café smoking nargileh.

My family is so happy that there is a revolution! My sister, as a lawyer, plans to travel to Egypt where the main revolution committees are and where she will be very helpful in establishing lists of casualties and giving testimonies. My grand-father helps me making posters and goes to demonstrations to film everything with a hidden camera since I can’t go out of home. The good thing is that he really doesn’t look like a demonstrator, so the moukhabarat[1] leave him alone.

People who keep repeating that everything is fine in Syria and that reports of crackdowns on the demonstrators are a conspiracy theory triggered by Israel are simply afraid of their fate once the regime will be down. So they keep justifying their support for the regime.

There is a participation of the minorities, but only at an individual level and not at an official or collective one. The same thing happens in the army, defections are the fact of low rank individuals from different cities and without any coordination. Most of them were doing their military service and are not career soldiers.

There are a lot of Druzes among the demonstrators in Damascus. However there are no demonstrations on Fridays in Druze cities simply because there are no mosques there! Kurds benefit from a special treatment from the regime that does not want them to join the contestation. But they keep going into the streets of their cities. The Kurds living in Damascus however are much more separatists and feel that this is not their revolution. As for the Palestinians, they don’t take part in the demonstrations because they’re afraid they might get problems.

There are also a lot of Alawis demonstrating, although the regime is particularly repressive against them because it does not want people to know that it is contested even within its own community[2]. In Lattakiah for instance in the first days of the contestation the moukhabarat isolated the demonstrators from their relatives that were not demonstrating, only to kill the latter in front of the former. This is much more dissuasive to kill the families of the demonstrators that threatening to kill demonstrators themselves.

A majority of Christians are still for Bachar Al-Assad. Some of them are even helping the moukhabarat or joining the anti-demonstrators militias. They think that the demonstrators are Muslim Brothers or unemployed, whereas a lot of them are highly educated. You only need to see the list of prisoners to realise that a lot of them are lawyers, doctors, architects or engineers. Besides, the mosques are the only place where people can freely meet (all other public meetings being forbidden) so they have an important social role. I hadn’t been in a mosque in the last 12 years when I first entered one a few months ago. Everybody goes to the mosques on Fridays to join the demonstrations; Atheists, Alawis, Druzes, Christians…

So far the situation has been different in Damascus and Aleppo because the regime wants to control these cities at any price. On Fridays (the only day for demonstrations in Damascus) they establish checkpoints between the different neighbourhoods to divide the city and make demonstrators feel isolated. Indeed, demonstrations are rarely more than a few hundreds strong, but so many are held in different neighbourhoods that tens of thousands actually demonstrate in Damascus each Friday. At the first demonstration in Damascus on February 5th there were about 200 people in front of the Ministry of Interior, out of which 150 people were arrested. But the second one on March 17th was much more attended. Each Friday is named in honour of a particular person or event. There was the Holy Friday, aimed at unity between Christians and Muslims in May, there was the Sahel Al Ali Friday (name of an Alawi hero) in June, and the ‘Irhal’ (get out) Friday in July.

Deraa is still besieged and nobody can get in unless from the city. It is possible to get out of it but this is very difficult and you can be banned from leaving the city. One of my friend is from there, but he still supports Bashar and says that everything is fine in Deraa. How can you live in such a lie?

The economy has collapsed; big companies and individually owned ones alike have closed. Infrastructure projects have stopped, so architects and engineers have no work at the moment. Like many others they have nothing to do so they go demonstrating. We already have gas problems, and are running short of diesel. It is used by public transport, and microbuses are now given 10 litres of diesel a day, enabling them to work only a few hours each time.

I went to Beirut once two months ago in a Chevrolet car. I was smuggled in Lebanon by smugglers from the region near the border. I took reports and videos that I gave to human rights organisations there, and brought back equipment to record and transfer videos, texts and pictures. The regime does not care so much about the Lebanese border, it is all focused on the Turkish border and has deployed the army along it because it doesn’t want refugees to cross and report what is going on in Syria.

The moukhabarat know everything because they have hears and eyes everywhere. However, they are totally behind in terms of technology and don’t know what Facebook is. I have been once asked at a checkpoint if I had a computer and if I had Facebook in it. They think that Internet and Facebook are two different things.

Most of the moukhabarat have not gone back home for the last three months and sleep in their offices. When they hit and insult people arrested they accuse them of not letting them go home. Usually they would kill/hit and shout: “Is that the liberty you want?”

I have been arrested a lot of time since the beginning of the uprising. At the beginning I was very afraid of being arrested, but know I don’t care anymore. The worst thing in prison is that you don’t know how long you’re going to stay. You are often left alone for a long time, hands attached and blind-folded. The moukhabarat would lie to you and say that your friend has been brought next door and confessed everything you did. It’s been one month now that every now and then moukhabarat come to my house and take me to jail. I usually stay 2-3 days a week, then I am released until the next random arrest. When I take my car someone would sit on the passenger’s seat and order me to drive to the jail where I will be questioned or left with my cigarettes and my mobile in an office without a word for the day, then will be brought back home at night. Because they are so many arrests, people can’t be kept a very long time as prisons are overcrowded.

Actually I am very embarrassed to know that people are listening to everything I say on the phone. When I come to jail they have a hand-written transcript (because they don’t have computer-based transcription service) of all my conversations.

In order to be delivered a death certificate as a ‘shahid’ (martyr) and therefore appear on registration lists hold by human rights organisations you need you have been killed by bullets. However, many other die from other causes (heart attack) linked to their ill-treatment by the moukhabarat and are not registered. I know of people in that case. Figures are different then, and I have heard of 70 000 casualties since the beginning of the contestation. Everybody knows someone who has been killed, so you guess that’s a huge figure.

Even if things were to end now and that Bashar stayed in power I would feel great somehow because the events have made people evolve. Even the moukhabarathave evolved and are now talking and chatting to people when arresting them. Before I could not express my political views against the regime with my friends are they were afraid to be arrested because of me and said that I was an Israeli agent.


[1] Moukhabarat : secret services in Arabic.

[2] The Assad family is indeed from the Alawi community, an Islamic sect that constitutes approximately 10 % of the Syrian population. Both Hafez and Bachar al-Assad have promoted members of their community, especially in the army, to ensure a stronger cohesion and influence.

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