Syria’s symphony of scorn

Criticism of the Assad regime spreads wider, as families grieve for protesters who have been killed in the crackdown.

Syria pro Assad protest in Damascus
Demonstrations against Syria’s rulers are becoming more widespread, despite the crackdown [REUTERS]

This is the second of a three-part feature by Al Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen. You can read the first part here.

On August 3, I visited the old Waer neighbourhood on the western side of the Syrian city of Homs. Most of its residents were originally Bedouin from the Egeidat tribe. Although its lower class apartment blocks certainly looked urban, the people maintained many of their older traditions and could often be found sitting on carpets on the street outside their homes at night, while children roamed freely about.

The Rawda mosque was the main place of worship for old Waer. “The West thinks we are Islamists because we come out of mosques,” a friend there told me, “but it’s the only place people can gather.”

At 9:40pm children ran down the streets, chanting anti-regime slogans. More than one thousand people gathered on the road in front of the fire department by the mosque that night. The fire department was covered in anti-regime graffiti.

About fifty women stood on the fringes of the demonstration. Most had only their hair covered with a hijab – unlike the more conservatively dressed women I had seen elsewhere – and they all sang and clapped with the rest of the crowd.

“Bedouin women are not like other women,” my friend told me. “We don’t make them wear the niqab.”

Many older men stood by watching. Men took turns leading the crowd on microphones, sitting on shoulders to stand above the rest. The people cheered when they heard clever lines.

“Listen, listen, oh sniper, here is the neck and here is the head!” they taunted, assuming there were hidden regime gunmen in the buildings.

To the leader of Hezbollah – who voiced his support for the Syrian regime – they called out: “Oh Nasrallah, you are not one of us, take your dogs and leave us!”

“Ignite, Aleppo, ignite!” they chanted, encouraging the people of Aleppo to rise up.

“Rise, Assi River, rise. We want to remove him before Eid, every day we mourn a martyr,” they cried out, using the Assi River as a symbol of the struggle. “Syria wants freedom!”

 “The people want the trial of the president”; “Bastard sold the Golan”; “Do you want Bashar? No by God”; “Hama we are with you till death! Der Ezor we are with you till death! Abu Kamal we are with you till death!”; “Bashar you thug, you want to ban the tarawih prayer, and the rights of Muslims and Christians! You have to go Bashar”; “Not forever! These are your last days, Bashar al Assad!”; “Birds, birds, birds, bye bye Bashar, have a good night” [this one is, granted, nonsensical – but sounds funny and rhymes well in Arabic]; “Listen, listen, oh Hassun [the pro-regime Mufti of Syria], take off the turban and put on horns!”; “How beautiful is freedom!”; “We want to throw Bashar in the nearest sewage pit! Syria wants freedom!”; “Damn your soul, Nasrallah”; “Thank you, oh Arur!” [people cheered when they heard the name of Saudi-based opposition cleric Sheikh Adnan al Arur];  “Damn you Maher – the roach! [Bashar al Assad’s brother]”; “Bashar, you are the night and we are the day”; “Peaceful!” And in one song, the protesters went as far as to make fun of the president’s lisp.

After the choir of scorn abated, a special guest was introduced.

“We have somebody from Hama here!” they announced. A young man from Hama took the loudspeaker and told the crowd of the brutality they were enduring and how six mosques were destroyed. Then he led the crowd in songs.

There were three separate demonstrations in Waer that night. At 11pm, word came of wounded demonstrators and martyrs elsewhere in the city. Our demonstration broke up in anticipation of the ambulances which would be passing on the same road we were on.

Becoming a statistic

The next day, Abu Omar, a friend of mine, smuggled me into a town named Rastan, just north of Homs. By the time we reached it, I had counted more than fifty tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

The residents made this town famous for destroying a giant statue of the late president Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s father.

As of my visit, however, they had lost 85 people to the security forces, with thousands more imprisoned, Abu Omar told me. I asked how the most recent ones had died.

“You ask a lot about the first person,” he said. “You ask less for the second and third, and then you just say ‘okay’.”

Thousands of people demonstrated on April 24, and 21 of them were killed. They ended up attacking the nearby military security headquarters. Rastan would become the centre of the armed opposition in Homs.

That night, after the tarawih prayers, as many as three thousand people gathered on Bareed Square, next to the Abu Amru mosque, for the demonstration. As security forces were not entering Rastan, it was once again a carnival-like atmosphere. Immense speakers were set up. Lights were hung above the protesters. On a nearby roof, activists were broadcasting the demonstration live on the internet. They sang along to trumpets and drums. There were many older men as well as children. Some women were clustered in the back.

The parable of Moses

On Friday, August 5, I went to the Omar ibn al Khatab mosque in Homs’ upscale Hamra district. Its sheikh, Mahmud al Dalati, was known to be a strong supporter of the opposition. In his sermon, he called upon God to defeat and destroy “our enemies” – an indirect reference to the regime.

He told the story of the prophet Moses, who spoke to his people when they feared the pharaoh was overtaking them. “Kala“, he said, which is a stronger rejection than the standard “no” in Arabic. Moses said “Kala,” the sheikh explained, “God is with us, it is out of the question, [Pharaoh] will not overtake us.”

The sheikh then praised the youth of the uprising. “Our youth are braver than any other people!” he said. The darkest time is just before the dawn, he explained. “But dawn is coming very soon.”

He then spoke of the military attack on the restive city on Hama. “They are killing our people without discrimination, women and children,” he said, going into detail about the regime’s alleged crimes. Many men in the audience started crying.

In the dua calls to God, a man named Khaled stood up with others and shouted “oh God!” louder than the others. He looked around and waved arms so others would stand up and shout too.

As the prayer ended, Khaled was among the first to lead the chants. “Oh Bashar you Nimrod, we are Arabs not Jews!” he shouted, “Oh Bashar, you collaborator, go strike Israel! Oh Maher you coward, go liberate the Golan!” The demonstration continued down the street.

And not so far away, in Gardenia Square, there were three buses full of state security, awaiting orders.

That night though I had planned on going to the demonstration in Khaldiyeh, but local friends warned me against it, so I decided to return to Old Waer. The demonstration emerging from the Rawda mosque in front of the fire department was joined by another demonstration coming from the Omarein mosque (formerly named the president’s mosque).

Many men stood on the fringes, just observing.

“How many martyrs do you want before you join us?” the demonstrators shouted to the onlookers, who were then shamed into coming closer and taking part. Some of the chants were led by children sitting on others’ shoulders.

At 11pm, the protest dispersed as word came of injuries from other demonstrations. Hundreds of locals gathered at the nearby Birr hospital to wait for the ambulances. One of the wounded was Ahmad Fadhil, a former professional football player from the opposition stronghold of Khaldiyeh. He was shot in the side of his abdomen. The body of Hassan Muhamada, slain by security forces during the noon demonstrations earlier in the day, was in the morgue.

As we left the hospital, another body was brought in. People said the Nur mosque in Khaldiyeh had been surrounded by security forces, which opened fire on it. “It was Khaldiyeh’s turn,” a friend of mine said.

An opposition leader from the area joined us later. He had heard rumours of someone writing in a notebook in English. He was incensed at the men I was with for allowing people to see me. Sitting in one of their houses later that night, we heard shooting and shouts of “God is great!” in the distance. “Security is here,” one of them said. “We need to get Nir out of here immediately.”

Breakfast in Ramel

On August 8 I visited the coastal city of Latakia. Its seaside slum of Ramel was another opposition stronghold. It was surrounded by nine checkpoints controlling every road into and out of it.

My friend Khalil called two friends from Ramel, Abed and Muhammad, and they came to pick us up. All were in their 20s and thin. Abed and Muhammad were both activists. Abed was dark and had the hardened look of a street fighter, sporting a bullet dangling from a chain necklace.

The three young men discussed how best to get me in without having soldiers or security members stop me and check my ID. They debated whether a bus or taxi was best, and finally decided we should walk in one by one.

We approached the hilltop where the soldiers stood.

“Just walk behind me,” Abed said. A few feet behind him, I tried to casually walk, holding my breath and passing the piles of sandbags and the soldiers who ignored me as they leaned forward to look inside a car.

We continued down the hill into Ramel, past a makeshift checkpoint set up by local opposition activists. They had piled sandbags into tall walls and built a gate using poles and barrels. The neighbourhood’s corners and streets were full of such checkpoints. The walls around them were pockmarked by bullets.

“This is the first line of defence,” said Abed.

“Do they enter the neighbourhood?” I asked.

“They cannot,” he replied proudly. “People here are steadfast, they fight back and they have killed security men, but not the army.”

The neighbourhood’s buildings were short, built of concrete and cinderblocks, unpainted and unfinished, with reinforcing bars used in construction protruding every which way out of them. People sat on rooftops and in the streets.

Before the demonstration, organisers played billiards to relax. One activist who was in charge of filming the demonstration waved his arm around at a crowd of activists behind him.

“All these guys are wanted,” he told me, “Those who aren’t wanted wear masks.”

I met an older man with a raspy voice whose job was to produce the large banners for the demonstration. The younger men seemed impatient for the protest to begin.

“The people want the execution of the president!” chimed one youth waiting with friends.

After the conclusion of iftar – a meal during Ramadan that breaks the fast – and evening prayers, protesters emerged from several overflowing mosques and converged en masse. The processions made their way to a large intersection of five different streets that locals had named “Assi Square”, in honour of the square used by demonstrators in the city of Hama. Women on balconies and roofs ululated as they threw rice and homemade confetti down on the demonstrators.

Protesters carried banners and gathered by the thousands in the square. Large loudspeakers were set up, and a large screen was hung off of a building. On a construction platform they placed a projector, and an MC with a microphone stood atop it, leading the unruly crowd in song along, with a drummer. Children shot small firecrackers into the air. “Oh Muslims, where are you?” they sang. “Hafez al Assad is the dog of the Arab nation” (mocking the historic slogan that he was “leader of the Arab nation”).

The screen showed live footage of demonstrations in Syria broadcast by Al Jazeera. When the screen shifted from a live shot of Homs to a live shot of us in Ramel, the crowd went wild, jumping, clapping and shouting, singing loudly in unison, shooting more fireworks into the air.

Ghost towns

On August 10, I drove with another friend, Najim, to the Damascus neighbourhood of Maadamiya, where the Zeytuni mosque was known to be pro-opposition.

Even before the uprising, Sheikh Naim al Hariri of the Zeytuni mosque had been outspoken by Syrian standards and had a reputation as a hardliner. One famous sermon he gave before the uprising was entitled “al wala’ wa al bara“, elaborating on the Islamic concept of being loyal to Muslims and having nothing to do with non-Muslims. He had been arrested briefly during the summer.

So we drove in that direction.

When we arrived, we found hundreds of security men all over the otherwise dark, deserted streets.

“It’s a ghost town,” said Najim.

At least a hundred soldiers, security men and thuggish looking civilians stood in the dark in another area, carrying their rifles. Najim wound his way through the alleyways to avoid checkpoints. We passed the Zeytuni mosque and saw that it was closed, its lights out, and a group of soldiers standing guard. We decided it was time to leave.

Two plain clothed security men sat in a car at an exit checkpoint. They checked the IDs of passengers in the car in front of us. At least four buses for security members were parked by them, and a large group of soldiers and armed civilians stood in the dark. We pulled up, and a security man asked to check my ID. I told him I had permission. He took it from me and showed it to the men in the car. He came back, handed me my ID, and said, “Okay, go.” I exhaled with relief as we pulled away.

As we travelled under the Zahra bridge in Midan, we passed a police van taking prisoners away. A large crowd in front of a mosque stood watching. There were at least 50 men in partial uniforms, holding clubs – and some carried electric stun guns.

As we left, I saw dozens of security men and civilian thugs standing by Midan’s Hassan mosque. I would later learn that security had ambushed men outside a mosque in Midan and violently beaten them. Midan’s history as a hotbed of rebellion goes back to the role it played in the anti-French revolt of 1925. It was also the scene of wide-scale riots in 1939 and 1943. In the 1960s it was a centre of conservative opposition to the Baath party under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Habannaka.

Midan’s Hassan mosque, named after him, is only one of the many mosques he built with money from his merchant supporters. In the early 1980s, Midan was a stronghold of armed Islamists. The Hassan mosque’s 90-year-old sheikh, Krayyim Rajih, is the spiritual heir of Habannaka. During the summer, Rajih was silenced by the regime.

We passed by the Rifai mosque on Kafr Susah roundabout, a few hundred metres from the State Security headquarters. This mosque was also known to be an anti-regime bastion. The Rifai mosque saw violence from the regime from the outset of the uprising. On March 25, after the Friday prayers, demonstrators emerged from the Rifai mosque.

The following week it was surrounded by security forces and people inside were too scared to leave. Sheikh al-Rifai negotiated with security, who promised to let people go home safely if they refrained from demonstrating outside the mosque. But security betrayed the promise, beating people and arresting them.

The following week, security forces prevented demonstrations – though tension resumed in early Ramadan. One disciple of the sheikh was killed in a demonstration. The funeral took place at the Rifai mosque, and in the demonstration that followed people were again beaten and arrested.

On this night I counted up to one hundred members of security forces and civilian thugs – armed with clubs – sat on the roundabout or loitering nearby. Nobody was going in or out of the mosque.

Some neighbourhoods were frightening ghost towns, while the ones right next door were bustling.

Thug life

The following night, my friend Suheib picked me up and we headed to his neighbourhood of Yalda in eastern Damascus to look for a demonstration.

We drove down Daabul Street. On one side, there were four buses and a bunch of civilian thugs and security men with clubs, electric stun guns- and even a shotgun. Further down the other side, by Yalda roundabout, there were two or three buses keeping watch on the Umahat al Mu’mineen mosque.

Suheib stopped by some young bony and bearded men he knew from the neighbourhood. He explained to me that they usually went out to protest.

“Today it’s a light security presence,” the men laughed. “Yesterday, there were 19 minibuses in the neighbourhood.”

Numerous young men were gathered on the streets – should security forces come, they would descend on them with stones, or delay them in case they were coming to arrest somebody, giving them time to flee.

We continued to the Daf Eshaq area nearby. There were many security men and civilian thugs by its Hussein mosque.

Back in the centre of town, I saw up to one hundred security and civilian thugs under the Midan bridge, and even more inside Midan’s streets. A Red Crescent ambulance on standby was parked up.

In the Nahar Eshi area, there were more than fifty security personnel and thugs with shotguns, rifles and clubs, and several buses for them. It looked like the aftermath of a clash.

Nearby, at the Ashmar roundabout, another flock of fifty security guards and ruffians stood around, waiting. I saw the same thing at the Marji roundabout in the centre of town. Dozens of security guards and thugs sat inside a building under construction, and also perched on its second floor looking down.

In the Rukn Eddin neighbourhood, I saw a bus with a large cluster of pro-regime hoodlums and security guards on Assad Eddin street. In the same neighbourhood’s Shimdeen roundabout, I saw three buses full of security personnel, some with rifles. In the Sheikh Muhyedin area I saw more security men by Tarbiya roundabout.

Mosques close up shop

Four days later, on the night of August 15, I returned to Midan and found that its important Hassan mosque was either abandoned or closed, while two other mosques each had about twenty security members waiting in front of them.

The Rifai mosque of Kafar Susah also had its regular huge deployment of security forces, and not far off I saw security staff armed with rifles and stun guns. And there were yet more security and thugs in front of a mosque by Meisal roundabout.

The next night, I again joined up with Najim and we decided to pass by the Rifai mosque. Two teenaged thugs stood brazenly, wielding clubs right in front of the mosque’s gate, while other security forces were deployed as usual on the roundabout, and outside adjacent buildings.

The Zeytuni mosque of Maadamiya remained closed. Qadam was a ghost town. I saw several security buses outside, and inside three pickup trucks drove by me, packed with men carrying shotguns and clubs.

In Qadam, people stared suspiciously at us. We were the only car driving through its dark streets. At the entrance to the Hajar al Aswad district, regime symbols had been torn down or defaced. In the main Hajar al Aswad roundabout, another large contingent of security forces and men armed with shotguns and clubs were present. Some were sitting and drinking tea, others looked sleepy.

The main market was open, however. Women were shopping and children played with firecrackers. Soldiers at a checkpoint before Daraya checked the IDs of all passengers.

We pressed on past a checkpoint, where a soldier lazily waved us through, and arrived in Maadamiya. Baladiya square in Maadamiya had more than 50 soldiers in full kit – armed with with rifles – standing and waiting. Dozens of armed security men stood in front of the still-closed Zeytuni mosque.

Throughout the pitch black neighbourhood, I saw soldiers and security forces deployed, stopping the occasional car and checking IDs. No shops were open and there were no pedestrians on the streets of this large neighbourhood.

“Movement is paralysed,” Najim said.

Movement seemed perfectly fine, however, in the Palestinian Yarmuk camp, where a pro-regime demonstration was taking place late that night.

Mourning the dead

The next day, I joined a friend in order to attend two funerals. So far, in August alone, eight young men from Homs had died in State Security detention.

We visited the family of 23 year-old Abdelkarim Siyufi, who was killed two days previously near the Fardus mosque in Inshaat after tarawih prayers. Mourners visited the family in a mosque in the Ghota neighbourhood. Abdelkarim’s father told me that his son had been shot in the head, kidney and groin.

More than a hundred men were seated in the mosque to pay their respects when I visited. They would stay for a short while and leave as new visitors came in. It seemed as if all the men of the area came to offer their condolences. There was strong solidarity with the families of martyrs.

Nearly one hundred men were also seated with Jamal Fatwa’s family. Jamal had been in his 20s. He and a friend, Khaled Mrad, were both arrested on August 5 after they were stopped and security forces found a microphone used for protests in their car. Five days later, Khaled was returned, dead, to his family. Ten days later, Jamal’s family was told to pick up his corpse. The bones in his chest were crushed. Both youths had been held by State Security.

A sheikh sat with the mourners and called upon God to destroy their enemies. He spoke of the martyrs: “We are all Jamal.” He recounted the story of Ammar bin Yasser, an early convert to Islam and close companion of the Prophet Muhammad, who was known for his deep faith.

Ammar’s father, Yasser, and mother, Samiya, were slaves to a cruel owner. When Ammar’s parents, brother and other relatives accepted Islam, they were attacked, their property destroyed. Ammar’s relatives were chained, taken to the desert, stretched under the sun and placed beneath large blocks of stone for all to hear their cries of pain so they would be discouraged from converting to Islam.

Ammar’s mother was later stabbed to death, becoming the first martyr of Islam. Then Ammar’s father and uncle were killed. Ammar himself was tortured and forced to curse the Prophet.

“Oh members of the family of Yasser!” said the Prophet, “Be patient. You have been promised paradise.”

The sheikh reminded the mourners of Ammar’s family – and of how many martyrs they had lost – and of the words spoken by the Prophet Muhammad.

“Be patient, people of Homs,” said the sheikh visiting Jamal’s family. “You have been promised paradise.”

You can follow Nir Rosen on Twitter @nirrosen

Source: Al Jazeera