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Middle East Comment from a Traveling Journo

Syria: In Hiding with the Real Opposition

The following is a personal account of the three days I spent in the mountains around Damascus with opposition members. A different version of this account appeared in The Times on Monday 4th June 2011

‘We want what you have – freedom.’ Four months ago, Ali Jaber Abu Hamze was a farmer in the small town of Madaya, in the Damascene countryside. Now he is Madaya’s head of the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union. He is in his mid thirties, with a thick black beard and a probing glare. As we take our seats in a large lemon grove, which adjoins the disused farmhouse where he hides, he explains his journey. Over the next hour two things become very clear: This man and his followers are – despite the best efforts of the Syrian government to publicise otherwise – neither Islamists nor violent extremists. And this – not the LCC – is the real opposition to the Syrian government. He says he is so dedicated to the cause, that he allows the use of his real name.

Ali Jaber has spent a year in a Syrian prison, and explains the brutality that made him even more convinced of his government’s illegitimacy. ‘Because it is difficult to find work, people earn money as informants. This country runs on informants. Someone told the government I spoke against the President.’ Crushed into a 5 by 5 metre space, groups of 40-50 men are stripped, covered in water and electrocuted with cattle prods. Forced rape, torture and beatings are common. He continues for a few minutes in far more gruesome detail until he pauses, and says ‘you must understand. We are not terrorists, nor Salafiya militants, nor Islamists. We are just regular Syrian people calling for the end to this regime. We are not using violence, we are responding to their violence.’ He goes onto explain his pre-revolutionary life as a farmer in the Damascene countryside. I am introduced to others who also led similarly unremarkable lives before protests began – mechanics, teachers, engineers and students, all of them from ordinary backgrounds wishing to do extraordinary things. Ali Jaber goes onto explain how immediately after the first protests in Dar’aa, virtually every young man in Syria was pulled into a local jail for questioning. ‘This is what made people join the protests. And when you see women and children dying at the hands of your government, you must act.’ He explains how the government pays 1000 Syrian Pounds on a Friday to any thug willing to beat or shoot protestors. ‘They are the violent ones.’

It is these men’s comparative normality that makes their cause all the more special, particularly given the extremely well-developed network they have managed to build. This becomes clearer as we head to another town, Zabadani. As we emerge from the compound in Madaya more men appear, and jump onto their motorbikes – they act as scouts for the 30 minute journey between the two towns, racing ahead to check for security forces. As we speed through the olive groves along dirt tracks in the middle of the night, the driver is alerted to another car following us. He takes a handgun from the glove compartment. ‘We have to protect ourselves,’ insists Ali Jaber, seeing my startled look. ‘You will see at the protests, we are not violent.’ We stop in a lay-by and wait for the car to pass, before continuing our journey. Syrian security is incredibly well-developed, with 17 separate branches. These men know to look for the black Peugeots of the internal security, or the larger people carriers of military intelligence.

A very basic three-room farm building, set on a small hill overlooking the apricot and cherry groves that carpet this Syrian-Lebanese border region, forms the base of Zabadani operations. Many more young men are there – all wanted by the authorities. Some of the men continue their regular jobs – as farmers or labourers – and use their wages to pay the way of the others who are unable to return to work. 7 men are on guard at all times, each with a walkie-talkie to avoid cellular tracing. Around 20 men spend their time between the street and this small farmhouse, where they eat, sleep and watch the news. At various intervals over the next three days the atmosphere darkens, as reports come in about security forces nearby. As each threat subsides, the mood lightens slightly, and jokes about the President’s appearance abound over a meal made in the house’s small kitchen. This has now become the reality of life for these men, and people like them all over Syria, separated from their families and living as fugitives. The regional leader in Zabadani, himself yet another former prisoner, shows me his mangled foot, on which guards repeatedly stamped when he was in jail, the fingers from which his nails were pulled, and the scars from repeated beatings on his back. Another man with diabetes explains how guards ignored his pleas for insulin when he was arrested, and allowed him to faint in his cramped jail cell before sending him to a military hospital, where a doctor broke a needle off in his arm. ‘They treat us like we are nothing. But now we are going to make something of this country.’

I ask about the organisation, and how it is structured. ‘From the street up!’ is the reply, ‘the LCC is hijacking our cause – men like us arranged the protests around the country.’ The others all signal their agreement. These men believe their real leaders are the ones still in prison, such as political activist Kamal Lubwani. Mohammad Ali (not his real name), is a young student who was made to fail his exams because he went to protest. He should have graduated this year. ‘I have not been arrested but I am afraid for my family. We have heard stories about how they rape women. He starts to cry as he explains, ‘if my sister is raped in front of me, I don’t know what I would do. People are losing their fear and getting angry.’

The following day his comments ring true as the biggest protests Syria has seen so far erupt all around the country. ‘We could not do this without the Internet or Facebook, Muhammad Ali explains as we look on at Zabadani’s protest from a nearby roof. ‘Are you not scared?’ I ask, ‘No. I am more scared of a future with Bashar al Assad as President. We are doing this for our children.’

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Filed under: Middle East

2 Responses

  1. Brilliant story. Sad, but true. Great to see first-hand report from the real opposition. Well done!

  2. […] Syria: In Hiding with the Real Opposition […]

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Middle East Comment from a Travelling Journo

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