Trapped in Douma, Syria: I saw the faith that keeps Syrian protesters going

During the 14 days I spent in Syria last month, I saw the most horrendous acts of the Assad regime on its people. When I asked people what spurred them on amid such indiscriminate brutality, they all gave the same response: Their only hope is their faith in right and wrong.

AP Photo
A member of the Free Syrian Army stands guard as anti-Syrian regime protesters hold a demonstration in Idlib, Syria, Feb. 6. The US closed its Syrian embassy Monday and Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a dramatic escalation of Western pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to give up power, just days after diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to end the crisis collapsed.

It is 6 a.m. in Douma, one of the suburbs of Damascus. The muezzin, who calls the faithful to prayer five times a day, is reciting the Quran and prayers from the grand mosque’s minarets through loudspeakers that the whole city can hear. I know Douma’s citizens are listening. 

During the 14 days I spent in Syria between Jan. 12 and 26, some of it trapped in safe houses in Douma, I saw the most horrendous acts of a regime on its people. And I know those acts were committed not just in Douma but also in a half-dozen suburbs of Damascus. Every single day, I saw the viciousness of the Syrian security forces – witnessing everything from killings to arrests of individuals in the middle of Damascus for no apparent reason.

I visited scores of families who had lost their sons. I saw orphaned little children who still didn’t know what happened to their fathers, uncles, and relatives. But the misery doesn’t end there.

I searched for an answer for what makes these people every single day rise up against such a ruthless regime. Why they go and participate in the protests in their neighborhood every single night, even though they know that the brutal regime forces they face recognize no humane rule while indiscriminately shooting at them.

Locals, activists in the revolution, or members of the Free Syrian Army militias gave the same answer every single time.

The Syrians I talked to did not tie their hopes for freedom to the Arab League, neither to Turkey or any Western government. I heard over and over again that their only hope is their faith in right and wrong, as taught by Islam and the life of the prophet Muhammad.

According to this faith, they explain, killing one innocent person is like killing the whole of humanity. Islam, they say, teaches respect for life and individual rights. They see the "right" they speak of as embodied in their fight for dignity. I kept hearing that word dignity when I asked people why they wanted a revolution. They see "wrong" as embodied by the regime's assault on its people, including women and children – it's desecration of life and suppression of freedom.

The opposition members I spoke to assured me: This is not a sectarian, religious fight as some outsiders fear – an uprising against the minority Alawites by majority Sunnis seeking religious dominance or Islamic rule. It is a fight for freedom and the dignity of life as taught in Islam. It is a fight for democracy.

All Syrians, they said, lived together with their various backgrounds in this land for centuries before the Assad rule, and will do so after it. They do not hesitate, however, to express their disgust for those who actively support the regime's brutality against it people. They clearly state their hope that those individuals will be punished accordingly.

Above all, the people of Douma and other Damascus suburbs have faith in their God and in their belief that the regime, which represents the absolute wrong, is about to collapse.

That is what keeps them going against all odds. And in two short weeks, I got a harrowing, first-hand glimpse of just the odds they are facing.

Most if not all Damascus suburbs are holding mudahara protests every night. I first witnessed a mudahara on Jan. 14, two days after I arrived in Syria, in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun. The regime’s irregular forces, the shabihas, attacked unarmed protesters in front of my eyes. Two or three minutes into the demonstrations, when people began chanting hurriyet, or “freedom,” regime security forces began shooting Kalashnikovs indiscriminately into the crowd.

My friends tried to protect me by hurrying me into a car, but it was too late for us to speed away from the scene. I saw shabihas dragging one protester, shot seconds before, into their car. (I was informed this protester died in the same night.) I saw several others arrested and given heavy beatings.

A middle-aged shabiha with white hair and a clean-shaven face yelled to us while shooting in the air, "On your honor, which side are you on? Al-Assad or the losers?" He let us go after our driver calmly explained that we were just passing through and had been stopped by the protesters and, of course, we added, "Long live Bashar al-Assad."

This was a lifetime’s worth of experience for me, but something protestors in Syria are going through every day.

A few days later on Jan. 21, I saw the atrocities continue. During a funeral in Douma the Syrian Regime Army savagely attacked civilians attendance, killing 6 and injuring many others. What triggered them to attack unarmed civilians who were joyfully praising their “martyr”? According to local people I talked to, it was the FSA’s promise to protect participants of the funeral against the regime’s troops.

Just to make an opposing point, the Syrian troops stormed into the scene, and in the daylight, began firing on the civilians. The scene was captured on video and broadcast throughout the world, all while my friends and I were desperately trying to find cover from the shootings.

For the first time, the FSA, which recruits the defectors of the Syrian Army and fit, young Syrians as well as some street gangs to overthrow the Assad regime, responded, taking action against the regime’s Army in the streets of Douma. At the end of Saturday, the regime forces had been forced to retreat from the streets, and instead were situated on the outskirts of the city.

By Sunday morning, a city of half a million, which is known for its rebellion against the Ottoman and French rule in the first part of the 20th century, appeared to be at the edge of another full-scale rebellion. Between Saturday night and Sunday morning, Douma’s streets were being controlled fully by the FSA’s armed militias, claiming its aim to protect people from the Assad regime’s forces. 

I had been trapped in Douma for several days, shuttling from safe house to safe house. The checkpoints in the city did not allow for us to leave and the savagery on Saturday during the funeral increased the tension around the city even further. The city, which is only 25 minutes or so far from Damascus by driving, was essentially under siege by the regime forces. Not only Douma, but also the suburbs of Saqba, Homeyra, Kafarbatna, and all of Gouta.

Even in the chaos, I saw the power of the faith and family that bind the Syrian people together in their cause for freedom.

At about noon on Sunday, we were hiding in a store right before reaching the ‘’freedom square.’’ Since there was a very weak Internet signal in this basement store, a friend from tensikiyat, a group of people who work on the PR wing of the Syrian Revolution, needed to go to a higher level to find a stronger signal for an Internet connection through a 3G cell-phone network.

On the third story of the same building, a neighbor opened up his doors to host these uninvited guests for an unknown period of time.

Our tensikiyat guy quickly and creatively connected to the Internet. We were able to talk with friends and families, and let everyone know what is going on in the city.

Kaseem, 7 years old and the grandkid of our host, with his soccer shirt and beautiful, black eyes, sat in the guest room trying to make a sense of what these strangers were doing in the house.

As hours passed by, the clashes outside sometimes grew louder and other times stopped. The house became crowded with neighbors joining our circle. Our driver, who was also a FSA connected guy, explained in Arabic with references from the Quran and the Prophet’s hadiths (sayings) how and why the city’s rebellion – it's fight for freedom and dignity – must go on according to the faith of Islam.

He talked about how the prophet Muhammad, with very few people, rose up against the powerful tribal regime and its culture in Mecca, which were suppressing people, especially women, daughters, and slaves. But the prophet never quit, he continued, finishing his talk by reminding the neighbors assembled around him of the victories in Tunisia and Libya. He insisted: Syrians are not lesser people than their brethren who just succeeded there in their fight against the tyrants.

In this suburb, even between the older folks, the conversation doesn’t happen only in the room but through Skype, with other parts of the world or with other Syrian cities. Everybody checks the latest news from their smart phones, commenting on what will happen next for the Syrian revolution or for the faith of the people of the city.

When the shooting got louder again, we were led into another room where the traditional Syrian dish – rice with roasted lamb, eggplant, yogurt, green onion, and some other local delicacies – was waiting for us. The wide, flat screen TV was broadcasting an English Premier League soccer game between Manchester United and Tottenham.

I have seen firsthand that it is times like this – the comfort of the family and neighborhood ties – that make the worst in Syria just a little bit more bearable.

I have seen nothing in the Syrian streets that can give more hope to Syrians rising against the state than their faith and families.

Maybe it will take a few weeks, months, or a year. It doesn’t matter to them. Every day they knit their future in the streets: people protesting, militias fighting, and computer geniuses spreading the word.

One step and hundreds of deaths a day. 

Ilhan Tanir is Washington correspondent for the Turkish Daily Vatan and columnist for the Turkish paper, the Hurriyet Daily News. An earlier version of this piece first appeared in the Hurriyet Daily News.

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