A so-called emergency law banned most forms of public assembly, and the group could think of only one place to stage a demonstration. On March 25, , a few dozen worshippers gathered at al-Zawiya mosque, downtown. They stood in rows, arms folded and heads lowered, as the imam recited the afternoon prayers. It was a standard religious interjection, but in this context it challenged the abiding principle of Syrian life: that Assad was greater than all things real and conceivable.
The young man helped lead a procession away from the astonished congregation and onto the street. They formed the nucleus of a band of activists who gathered every Friday and marched through the market as regime agents watched from the sidewalks. In this tense atmosphere, Haf—who, before the revolution, had never been known to express a political opinion—offered joy and charisma.
They scrawled slogans on placards and planned escape routes. The Friday crowds steadily grew. My friends kissed me, some old people cried, I was expecting a bullet to penetrate my head anytime and to die on their shoulders. It was a strange and fabulous feeling. A few weeks later, the government delivered the body of a soldier from Saraqib who had served in Daraa. Officially, he had been killed by protesters, but his corpse showed a bullet wound to the back of the head.
That April, government forces stormed Saraqib. Hossein spent the evening skirting alleyways and crouching on unlit porches as security personnel searched houses. He made it home, but almost a hundred activists were rounded up. When the Army opened fire on demonstrators that June, killing one person, residents set the Baath Party headquarters ablaze.
Friends from Damascus by Cliff Happy | NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble®
Standing in the crowd, Hossein, with delight and trepidation, realized that the revolution was overtaking the entire town. The government retaliated with even greater force; on August 11, , its tanks and Humvees stormed Saraqib again. When they failed to find activists in their homes, they arrested their friends and relatives. They ransacked shops and set houses aflame. From the olive groves outside town, Hossein watched columns of smoke rise over Saraqib.
One evening, he went to the fig tree, where he found the leadership of the protest movement—some forty people. An electrical cord from a nearby farmhouse powered a tiny light bulb, and under its faint glow the men drank bitter coffee, smoked, and debated. They were young—university students, farmers, laborers—and had no clear idea of what should replace the government.
None of them besides Hossein had ever read a political tract or attended a party meeting. Vague ideas about democracy and the redistribution of wealth were floating around Saraqib; some residents worried that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood would intrude on their nonviolent uprising. But no one could fuse these sentiments into a program of action—it was challenge enough to survive the night.
The activists agreed that, before they could move forward, they needed to become better organized. For many of the activists, it was the first time that they had ever voted. They discussed how to protect the demonstrations. A fierce argument broke out when some of the men proposed arming themselves. Most of us were. People were saying that weapons would take us back to the nineteen-eighties. Some weeks earlier, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood from Saraqib, who was in exile in Saudi Arabia, had called him and offered to raise funds for weapons; Hossein had refused.
Syria’s Last Bastion of Freedom
Under the fig tree, he made an impassioned speech against arming, and the activists agreed to continue their peaceful revolution. The meeting dispersed after midnight. Hossein and three friends drove a tractor to a farmhouse deeper in the country. They bedded down in a storeroom. In the darkness, they could see only the dancing ends of lit cigarettes as they mused about a future that, for the first time in their lives, seemed to belong to them. In the bazaar or the schoolyard, residents of Saraqib would hear the low rumble of an approaching aircraft and run in panic.
Some weeks, more than a hundred barrel bombs struck the town. They fell asleep. As he was thrown to the ground and blindfolded, he could hear screams and gunshots. Hossein soon found himself in a large cell, caught in a thicket of limbs and enveloped by the smell of sweat. He counted more than four hundred people, including children. He had also been strapped to a foldable board, known in Syrian prisons as the Flying Carpet; his legs were pressed against his face while he bore the weight of a jailer.
Weeks passed. One night, guards dragged in a protester whose legs and back were blue from torture. Inmates gathered around and poured water on his bruises. Hossein massaged his skin, in a desperate attempt to improve circulation, but the man was dying. Hossein was moved to a series of prisons. He strained to conjure the sweetness of a cigarette, and wondered how his mother was coping, and if his friends were still marching. It was little consolation when he discovered a friend from Saraqib, Yaser, in the cell with him. One day in November, he heard the faraway cranking of a gate, followed by muffled footsteps in the corridor.
It was a guard, who called out names, including his own. He and fifty-one other prisoners were shuffled into the hallway and told to stand, shoulder to shoulder, in two rows. Hossein found Yaser and stood next to him. Hossein never saw the people in the other line again. Thousands of Syrians were being rounded up on similar charges, but as prisons began nearing capacity the regime started to release some detainees.
On January 20, , after five months of imprisonment, Hossein walked free. The town had arranged a welcome parade for him: honking cars, children hoisting streamers, women ululating from balconies, men beating tabla drums. He arrived home and embraced his parents. To his shock, there were guns everywhere. People were firing joyously into the air, illuminating the night sky over Saraqib. The friends he used to meet under the fig tree, once mere teachers and construction workers, were now armed, each a master of his own brigade.
Friends from Damascus
Hossein reconnected with old friends and threw himself into organizing new protests. He learned that, after his arrest, the debate about taking up arms had persisted for weeks. At the time, four or five locals had been collecting names for the regime. These agents—who came to be known as shabiha , a term originally referring to coastal smuggling gangs—also harassed the relatives of activists, and sometimes raided houses. We were terrified. One evening, shabiha stormed the market, on a tip that a protester was present.
When they could not locate him, they began threatening people. At a barbecue restaurant, they forced a boy to the ground and shot him in the hand. Finally, they found the protester, and began firing at him. These were the first rounds fired by a revolutionary in Saraqib. The shabiha suspended their raids, emboldening activists to raise funds from friends and family to buy weapons. By the time Hossein returned home, six small rebel groups were operating in Saraqib, each led by one of the original activists. Similar militias sprouted around the country, and even though there was no central organization, they collectively called themselves the Free Syrian Army.
The F. Syrian Army officers appeared on YouTube, thrusting their I. Armed rebels began erecting hundreds of roadblocks. One small town after another fell under the F. In the spring of , the regime struck back. A brutal counter-offensive swept across northern Syria, and soon reached the suburbs of Saraqib. Schools were closed, and, with all military-aged males under suspicion of supporting the revolution, families sent their sons to other provinces. Rebels began to lose their nerve. Regime forces began to amass within sight of Saraqib, and an invasion appeared imminent.
One night, the activist Iyad Jarrod, who had been filming a documentary in Saraqib, visited a rebel encampment. In a courtyard, under an orange-tree sapling, he found Haf assembling roadside bombs from cooking-gas cylinders. A few fighters huddled nearby. The fighters complained about the lack of international support and a shortage of weapons. Jarrod asked Haf about desertions. We will be victorious. I first visited Idlib in the spring of , in the company of local activists.
We entered Syria late at night, on foot, then drove on country roads. In roadside hamlets, candlelit windows betrayed flickers of movement inside. After resting in a hilltop village, we descended onto the plains of central Idlib. A pink dawn exposed the country below: rusting iron shacks, brown barns, squat houses. Here and there, dark columns of smoke collected over stone villages freshly subdued by the Syrian Army. In Saraqib, the streets were desolate, the shops shuttered.
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A week earlier, the Army had reconquered the town. Regime forces were bivouacked on the outskirts, and locals were afraid to talk. One of them was Mousab al-Azzo, who lived in a working-class neighborhood on the west side. Azzo, a bright-faced thirty-nine-year-old with graying hair, had been a popular soccer coach until economic difficulties forced him abroad to find work repairing water-well drill rigs.
He returned to Syria just before the revolution and soon became a fixture at the Friday protests. He was at home when the regime invaded Saraqib. Then it was quiet, and we saw tanks coming. More than thirty F. Haf and other survivors hid in abandoned buildings. The regime soldiers went house to house, looking for rebels. He watched through a window as his neighbor, a tailor, looked for survivors. Soldiers suddenly appeared, detaining the tailor and one of his cousins. For the rest of the day, Azzo remained hidden at home, as other residents were taken to the gas station and killed.
The next day, soldiers began looting the market and setting fire to shops as they hunted for Haf. We are not Israel! One of the officers ordered his men to set the house afire. It was almost evening, and the power had been cut. Wisal rushed out into the dark street. Women were wailing.
Bodies were strewn everywhere. She found Uday, eyes open, as if he were still alive. For two days, the Army continued killing. Haf and a few rebels were spotted near a farmhouse outside town. Regime soldiers opened fire. Haf ran behind the farmhouse and shouted for his men to escape while he provided cover. He was killed within minutes. That evening, the Army left Saraqib. He wept as Haf was buried. He felt that his own youth, idealism, and imagination were being lowered into the earth along with his friend.
The regime moved on to quell rebellions in other towns, but it left behind a few checkpoints, and a sniper positioned himself in a radio tower overlooking the neighborhood of Mousab al-Azzo, the former soccer coach. For months, the sniper shot at anything that moved. A four-year-old girl was struck in the spine and paralyzed. Hossein, who lived nearby, could visit his home only after sunset, wearing black.
But, with the regime forces largely gone from Saraqib, surviving revolutionaries began to regroup. Amid burned market stalls and heaps of rubble, protesters filled the streets once again. Qatar and other Gulf states flooded Syria with guns and money, and rejuvenated rebel units were soon invading Aleppo and pressing at the gates of Damascus. In November, , rebels in Saraqib expelled the sniper, and the final regime checkpoint fell.
Elated demonstrators blared revolutionary songs from car speakers. He had little time to celebrate: his town had to contend with continued shelling, destroyed markets, devastated neighborhoods, and homeless families. Municipal directors and factotums had fled along with intelligence agents and shabiha.
Trash piled up, electricity was intermittent, schools were open irregularly. They decided to establish a twelve-member body to govern Saraqib, and they called it the Local Council.
Hossein was named its first president. Not long afterward, Hossein was introduced to Kinda al-Kassem, an in-law of his brother. She had studied physics at college and was now teaching the subject to schoolchildren. In response to the exigencies of wartime collapse, Local Councils had spontaneously arisen in hundreds of liberated towns and cities. Hossein and his comrades knew of no model for such a bottom-up government, but they understood that whoever ran Saraqib would need strong public support. Hossein concluded that Local Council members should, one day, be chosen through a free and fair election.
Not all residents embraced the notion of a democratic Saraqib. The first hints of resistance came from the market, where DVDs that portrayed the exploits of jihadis battling American troops in Afghanistan were surfacing. Then, during the sniper days, Hossein began noticing bearded fighters around town, who kept to themselves and did not carry the tri-star revolutionary flag. Their leader was a stout, jovial man known as Abu Anas. In the nineties, Abu Anas, a teacher of Arabic literature, had founded a circle of activists devoted to opposing communist ideas—then popular in universities—and to championing a purist doctrine of political Islam called Salafism.
After , some of these men went to Iraq to battle the U. In a series of amnesties in , most of these fighters were released, and made their way back to Saraqib. Golfed a little. Cried more than you would think. Read The World According to Garp. Saw Apocolypse Now. Went to amazing weddings in Upstate New York. Drank a ridiculous amount of milk. Learned how to make sand art. Saw a great light show. Saw the Angels and Lakers. Fell in love with Jawbone Up.
Cooked with Jaime. Gardened with Jaime. Watched Homeland with Jaime. Wrestled with Jaime. Laughed for hours with Jaime. Worked on a play. Played World of Warcraft. Did some improv. Played a ton of the guitar. Really just had a wild, amazing year. What a world. By the time I finished reading, I realized that my non-phone hand was clutching tightly to my forehead, forcefully scrunching my forehead skin together.
But instead of distancing myself from the horror, I soaked in it. I read it again and again, fascinated by how something could be so aggressively unappealing. The general ran through the numbers of Iraqis coming into Syria. Sixty thousand this month; between a million and a half and two million over the eighteen months since There was concern that the Iraqis would bring their war along with them. If that happened, it could tear Syria apart. He warned of coming radicalization should the war leave Iraqis destitute and without options.
If the international community did nothing to alleviate their suffering, he told me, we should expect instability and international terrorism that will affect not only the region but the developed countries. Released at last into the heat and tumult of the border area, I split off from the TV crew.
There was only one minder for all of us, a small nervous man named Basil with a moustache too big for his face. The TV crew was more than enough to keep him busy. I approached a crowd of several hundred Iraqis lining up outside the immigration building. Fathers held babies, fanning them with pink residency applications. He was from the southern city of Basra, where he said Shia militias were murdering barbers and shopkeepers who sold ice, since ice cubes and a clean shave did not exist in the time of the Prophet Mohammed.
They kill anyone. Behind him quavered an old woman who had pulled her scarf across her face, not out of modesty, but for fear of being recognized. A month earlier, unknown militiamen had killed two of her sons and three brothers-in-law. Her husband had been driven mad with grief. I wanted to assure her that they could not get to her now. But that was unclear—I was hearing stories of militants who followed their targets across the border and killed them in Syria.
At the far side of the immigration building, a man was pacing agitatedly outside the barred window of a jail cell.
Back and forth, back and forth. He looked inside the bars, said a few words, passed through bits of food, and paced. On the other side was his wife, caught trying to cross into Syria on fake documents. Real passports could of course be bought too, but at twice the cost. A man who arranged such things told me that for a thousand US dollars he could get me an authentic Iraqi passport in three days, and no, it was not a problem that I could not pass for an Arab among the blind. In the lineup snaking out of the immigration building into the dust-choked yard stood three burly middle-aged men, engaged in the endless task of jostling for a patch of shade beneath the lone tree.
All of the oil workers, they said, were being kidnapped or killed. Not Saddam, one of them said. Twenty-five years ago, Donald Rumsfeld was shaking his hand. Grizzled and weary-looking, the engineer had to check off one of three reasons for entering Syria—business, tourism, or other.
He claimed to be a tourist. His colleague interjected. The Iraqi people are romantics. We like poets, songs, nature, and nowadays we hear nothing but explosions and bombings. I too had come to Syria on a standard-issue tourist visa. In the old days they would have to follow you around, but now they can watch your computer and listen to your phone. They can restrict your movements, decide where you can go, whom you can talk to, how long you can stay, and make trouble for whoever talks to you.
In the letter accompanying my visa application I explained that I was a professor who had studied classical Arabic and wished to see what remarkable sights Syria had to show me. To everyone I met, unless I was interviewing them, I was just a tourist here. To the idle curious; to the sultry neighbour in the apartment below mine, on her second marriage, who told me her life story over tea; to the talented family of artists I befriended after stumbling upon their craggy studio built into the ancient city walls; to the taxi drivers shooting the breeze or gathering information, maybe —to all of them I was simply a professor on holiday.
I was just interested in art or archaeology or architecture or history or Sufi poetry. Which indeed I was. A bus with purple velvet curtains had pulled into the dirt parking lot, its passenger windows shot out. Leaving the trio of engineers, I went over to inquire, clambering up for a look inside.
The driver told me it had happened in the early hours of the morning in Baghdad; US forces were on patrol and simply strafed the area. The cameraman I had spoken to earlier ran over to check it out. He poked his head inside the bus but decided it was not worth filming. This stuff happens all the time.
Iraq is composed of three main groups: Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds, along with a patchwork of small minorities, some of whom have lived there for thousands of years. The two main branches of Islam, the Shias and the Sunnis, are no farther apart than Protestants and Catholics, which is to say, far enough. The Shia are the majority in Iraq more than 50 percent, which would win any ballot-box competition , but Sunnis, Saddam Hussein among them, have traditionally held power. Nevertheless, the Iraqi people lived mostly at peace with their neighbours.
So much so that by nearly a third of the population had intermarried, and most major towns and cities were mixed. Brutal dictator though he was, what they failed to consider when they decided to remove him were the dire consequences commonly observed whenever a strong central power is removed without adequate civic institutions in place. In a diverse society that lacks such unifying structures, there are two tendencies when authority breaks down: a disintegration into communal groups and violence.
When governments falter, people turn to anyone who can provide security and basic needs, by whatever means. With Saddam Hussein felled by George W. Even worse, and with far-reaching consequences, were two orders issued by the Americans under their chief administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, a former ambassador to the Netherlands who had no prior experience in the Middle East—or any conflict zone for that matter. The purge amplified as Shia death squads began showing up after dark in Sunni neighbourhoods; torture chambers were run out of the Interior ministry.
Ex—Baath Party officials and ex—army officers were the first targets of the death squads and were first to flee the country, followed by the intellectuals and anyone who had worked for the US coalition forces. In February , the golden dome of an eleven-hundred-year-old Shia shrine was blown up in the ancient mixed city of Samarra. The bombing was blamed on an Iraqi al-Qaeda franchise, a new group of fighters from Iraq and surrounding Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, bent on bringing down the Shia-led government.
Before the bombing in Samarra, there had been lists of specific targets, but now any man or woman found to be Sunni or Shia, or a minority—Christian, Mandaean, Yazidi, Palestinian—could be stopped on the way to work, their identities inferred from the names on their ID cards, and tortured to death, or simply gunned down in their homes.
At the UNHCR registration centre in Damascus, where crowds of refugees lined up each morning at dawn, clerks took down their reasons for fleeing. I get sick from the stories, a fresh-faced young Syrian clerk had told me. She meant it literally: she sometimes had to excuse herself to throw up. But with neighbouring countries refusing them refuge Jordan had already taken half a million or more , Syria was the last exit from the killing fields.