Syria: Fear and Defiance in Homs
The New Yorker
June 1 2011
The writer is in Syria and is remaining anonymous for security reasons.
I arrived in Homs as the first government tanks were deployed to the city. My friends were frantic, storing bread and candles and all sorts of food; the bathtub was filled with water and so was every container they could think of. They weren’t alone; other families in Homs did the same, scared by the stories they heard about Daraa, the city that was that was closed off and hit some ten days earlier. Having stored everything they could think of, they sat and waited for the following day: Friday.
Friday has become a day of protests in Syria and across the rebellious Arab world. But with the Army moving in my friends discussed endlessly whether anyone would take to the streets, or if people would remain home, afraid. Many had been killed in the city during the protests in the weeks before at the hand of the secret services, the Mukhabarat. Still, thousands of Homsis defied their fear and the tanks, and went out to the street to call for freedom and an end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Then, when it was dark, the government’s artillery barrage came. Not all of parts of Homs were hit, but the sound kept everyone in the city awake. We heard shooting and explosions through the night; we were sick and worried, with the same, single thought: Hama all over again! (Bashar Assad’s father killed thousands there, thirty years ago.) I had already heard from friends who had been arrested since the protests began, who told me about how they had been shot with electricity, hit severely, stripped naked, and deprived of sleep. When the morning came, we realized that the actual damage was not as bad as it had sounded, even though there were painful losses (fifteen were killed in Homs that day, and many wounded). This seemed deliberate: the government had, for the moment, kept the casualties in Homs, as in other parts of the country that protested, below the level that might push other countries to intervene, while also making as much terrifying noise as possible. I had little doubt that even those who kept to their homes and never protested would be haunted by the sounds they heard for a long time. The goal was to restore a state of fear.
A Homsi friend, whom I’ll call Ghada, told me why she decided to take part in the protests. While visiting Damascus, she was sitting in the back seat of a taxi as the driver began to interrogate her daughter, a four-year-old. “Who is he? This is Dr. Bashar, an eye doctor, are your eyes hurting?” the driver said, pointing at a billboard image of President Assad (who was trained as an ophthalmologist), with the line “The master of country” written over it. “Do you know him? Do you love him?”
For a second, the only image Ghada could think of was the picture of a dead man in Al-Sanameen, near Daraa, who was shot in the eye by government snipers early on in the Syrian uprising. And she remembered a fact every Syrian knows too well: many taxi drivers work for the Mukhabarat, the secret services, and one way they have of gathering information and watching over the current mood in the country is through chit-chat with passengers. For years, Syrians have bitten their tongues when a taxi driver suddenly decided to talk about fuel prices or the government’s performance in any area.
“I could hear my heart racing when I remembered my little angel’s favorite act lately,” Ghada said. Her daughter had been walking around the house for days chanting, “The people want to overthrow the regime!” and “Allah, Syria, and Freedom only!” These were the two lines protesters had been chanting across the country, the two lines for which over a thousand Syrians had been killed and over ten thousand arrested and tortured, according to human-rights organizations. The girl had repeated them so often that Ghada was called in to her kindergarten and asked not to allow her daughter to watch the news with her anymore, as she was “inciting insubordination among other children.”
“I couldn’t think straight for a moment, a million thoughts raced through my head! No, they wouldn’t harm a child; I can simply say she saw it on the television and doesn’t understand—but then didn’t the official media warn us endlessly not to watch any of the Arab news channels, the traitors inciting instability in Syria?” Then she remembered how the uprising started in Syria: more than a dozen children, all under the age of fifteen, inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, wrote on the wall, “The people want to overthrow the regime.” Those children were arrested. News reports said they were tortured, their fingernails pulled out.
Ghada thought of the photo she had seen online of one of them, who couldn’t have been more than ten years old. He had a frightened look in his eyes; his face, which was covered with bruises, was bent down, and she remembered thinking, Here is a child who will probably never raise his head up again.
“What did they teach you to say at school?” she shouted at her daughter. The girl, not used to her mom talking to her in that tone of voice, said, almost dazed, “Allah, Syria—and Bashar only!”
“Almighty God, even those who can hardly speak say his name with adoration!” the driver said, approvingly. Afraid that her daughter might say something else, Ghada pretended that the girl was sitting in the wrong way and hit her on her shoulder harshly. For the rest of the drive, her daughter cried and fidgeted, as the driver changed the cassette to play, loudly, a pro-Assad song. When they arrived, he waved goodbye to the little girl and told Ghada to go easy on her; all children could be naughty, but “she knows what is right and what is wrong in life and that is what matters.”
“I realized I’d just taught my daughter what we Syrians know well: fear,” Ghada said. ” As I got out of the car, all I could think was, I don’t want my girl to grow up to be like me—afraid! I now want to overthrow the regime.”