The Economist Online
GET PAST the leather-clad man at checkpoint when you enter Homs and you heave a sigh of relief. Syria has long inspired paranoia: conversations are conducted in whispers, and software is downloaded to beat the internet monitors. During meetings phones, all assumed to be tapped, are left on top of fridges so that only their whirring can be heard. But in the past two months that has grown even more acute. Most interviews are done via Skype, code-words are used on the phone, meetings are abandoned at any sign of men in leather jackets, the uniform of the security forces.
A trip to Homs, an industrial city 100 miles north of Damascus, seemed worth the risk. It is is a microcosm of the rest of the country; Sunnis live alongside minority Christians and Alawites and tribal families rub shoulders with the poor and the educated elite. Largely ignored by foreign visitors but a lively hub of intellectual and café life, Homs has been subject to a heavy security and military crackdown in which scores have been killed since protests began in March. The worst came after a sit-in on April 18th at Clock Tower square. Tanks have now withdrawn to the outskirts of the city—lined up along the road to the restless villages to the north of Rastan and Telbiseh—but the atmosphere remains tense.
It is a pleasant town with glassy cafes next to old souqs and new concrete low-rise neighbourhoods. Bar the checkpoints, things seem normal. But dig a little deeper and there is much more to it. Introduced by a local friend to "safe" people in the city, the divisions between the protesters and the rest of the population are immediately apparent. The former have become an underground club. The weather and family matters dominate conversations with acquaintances who cannot be trusted. With others who have been vouched for, talk turns to the latest demonstration or person to go missing. Suspicions of the Alawites, the sect to which the president, Bashar Assad, belongs, are frequently raised.
The government's opponents are more willing to talk than I had expected. "So much is happening that is not being seen; we've had no-one to tell," says one enthusiastic protester in his twenties, talking so fast it is hard to keep notes. I visit him in his house, a small ornate flat in the city suburbs. Small cups of cardamom-infused coffee, juice and biscuits are served immediately. Hospitality is not comprised, even in times of trouble. His mother, a slight woman, unveiled in the privacy of her house, is wary, anxious to check that none of their names or the location of their house will be disclosed. Her son, however, is so eager to talk.
He talks and talks, flitting between different stories: about what happened on April 18th when, he says, "many more were killed than the media knew about"; about small protests that have popped up and been put down; about his escape from security forces by jumping out of a third floor window and why he could not seek medical help for the bruises on his face; about friends plucked from protests who have not been heard from since; about how he does not believe that the president is calling the shots but rather Maher, his younger brother.
And then he returns to the night in Clock Tower square. "It was so amazing, you can't imagine," he says, smiling. It was the only event that has come close to the atmosphere of Tahrir Square in Egypt, a sight which inspired him and his friends. People set up tents and local restaurants provided food. Women and children had their own special areas. Alawites and Christians protested alongside each other. Then boof! At about two o'clock in the morning the security forces started shooting. The violence has continued since then.
We get back in the car to drive to the clock tower, past the old souqs and the Christian area of Hamidiyeh where protesters say they were given water. Boarded windows are the only sign of the trouble; it has been cleaned up well. We head to Bab Sbaa, a predominantly Sunni neighbourhood where demonstrations have been daily, but circle back after spying heavy checkpoints on the sandbagged corners and head for Baba Amro instead. Security forces at a impromptu checkpoint marked by a small minibus wave us by. We enter the area. It is not as badly shelled as news reports had suggested. The blown-out windows of a blue building at one of the street and a burnt patch of grass on a roundabout hint at the unrest. Members of the security forces apparently scrawled "We will die for you, Bashar" in graffiti and locals rubbed it out. At the other end of the street is a brightly coloured mall with its windows blown out but a hole in the wall already mended.
My host is keen to avoid the Alawite neighbourhoods but we drive past so he can point to the empty streets and shuttered windows. Many in these neighbourhoods and beyond appear to have fled. Next to Bab Tadmor, an area in the heart of the city, just metres away from the expensive cafés, children with matted hair and ragged clothes peep round black metal doorways in crumbling sandy-coloured streets.
This poverty was in part what inspired people to take to the streets, says a flushed 24-year-old man dressed in black jogging pants and a grey sweatshirt when we meet later in the evening. But now the spark is as much the brutal crackdown by the government as it seeks to crush dissent. His enthusiasm is palpable. "I wanted to wait a bit," he says. "But then we saw some people go out, saw the violence and saw what the state television was saying and it made us so angry." He adds: "I have seen amazing things you wouldn't believe, people shot dead, my 73-year-old uncle is missing and we have no idea where he is." He cannot forget one incident in particular: an 18-year-old man near him in a protest in Baba Amro was shot through the neck and the bullet came out of his head, blood spraying everywhere. He says he saw another shot through the chest by what he believes was an exploding bullet, leaving a huge hole in his back. Young men like him have no future in Syria he says. He describes himself a second-class citizen, left behind by others his age with jobs and families. A university graduate, he has no work and cannot afford to buy a house so that he can get married. He had, he says, no hope. Until now.
Friday, May 27, 2011