More than five months into Syria’s uprising, at least 2200 people have been killed and thousands more detained. The activists involved in the protest movement have insisted on non-violence and non-sectarianism but it’s not clear how much longer that can last. I recently accompanied a doctor and an activist as they made their rounds of Harasta, a small town on the northern outskirts of Damascus.
In one of the low-rise blocks of flats, a middle-aged man, a manual worker who made friends with the doctor during the uprising, angrily argued that he wanted to fight. The activist, a young woman, said they mustn’t. ‘I know, I know,’ the man said. ‘Our revolution is peaceful and it is not sectarian. It is not sectarian. But how are we not supposed to fight back?’ The activist argued that the moral advantage gave the protesters the upper hand. ‘The army and police don’t know better,’ she said. ‘They are Syrians too.’
In a low-rise building off a dirt road a man helped his 26-year-old son hobble from behind the curtain that separated the living-room from the bedroom. His right eye was purple and his left hand bandaged. Three days earlier he had been beaten with iron bars; his hand still had no feeling in it. He rolled up his jogging bottoms and took off his T-shirt: he was covered in whipmarks and burns. There were thin marks round his wrists from the plastic used to tie them together. He had been detained after heading to the nearby area of Douma to protest. ‘They asked me to say I love Bashar al-Assad. I said no, I don’t, no one here does. So they took me and they beat me.’
In a room off the sunny stone courtyard of another house, a woman served coffee as friends crowded round her son’s bed. He said he had started to protest because he was frustrated; he carried on protesting because he and his friends were beaten. He had seen others shot. He had been dragged onto a bus in Douma along with a group of other men and beaten by soldiers, security forces and plainclothes thugs. ‘They started to hit us and shout: “With our blood and souls we sacrifice for you Bashar.” There was another man, old. They asked how old. He said 50. They said 50 is enough, and shot him.’
‘It has got so bad that children are born chanting: “We don’t want the House of Assad,”’ the young man’s mother said.
One of the boys at the bedside said he saw government thugs pour whisky over cars – an insult to Islam – before smashing the windows. But such acts of intimidation and humiliation only spur people on. They also deepen sectarian rifts between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority, which Assad and most of his senior officials belong to.
Individual protesters have fought back, but there is no armed movement, whatever state propaganda may say. ‘I truly expected a civil war by the summer,’ one Syrian analyst told me. ‘It is testimony to the people that we are not there – yet.’ But watching Libya reach endgame as Syria continues in stalemate is pushing people to breaking point.
The doctor’s son drove us (at speed) back to Damascus. Someone said that we should all have our seatbelts on: as of last year, it’s a legal requirement. ‘No,’ the doctor said, smiling at his son. ‘We are the opposition.’