[Marxism] Syria: NATO must help us!

Tristan Sloughter tristan.sloughter at gmail.com
Thu Sep 1 19:02:03 MDT 2011


Syria: Nato must help us! | Politik

While travelling secretly through Syria, Wolfgang Bauer met with rebel
leaders in the city of Homs and witnessed the brutality of a regime
waging war against its own people.

The knock on the door is soft, barely audible at first. Faten, in the
kitchen clearing away the dishes, freezes at the sound. She listens
carefully. Her husband, Ahmed, is in an armchair watching television.
He turns off the volume and cocks his head to the side. “Shit,” he
says. The knocking is harder now and more insistent. Loud thuds echo
through the apartment. The front door is the only thing that separates
them from the terror outside. “Shit,” Ahmed says again and rises from
the armchair. “Who is it?” He dashes to the drawn curtains and holds
his head close to the fabric to peep outside. He looks out the window
to the street, over to the neighbour’s, then to the courtyard. Faten
stands at the peep hole, visibly nervous and agitated. She hesitates a
moment before looking out. Suddenly it’s quiet. “I don’t see anybody,”
Faten whispers in a voice bordering on panic. She's not usually like
this. Faten is the one who's always calm and composed in the family,
who tries to laugh off danger with her dry sense of humor. Ahmed goes
to her, looks briefly into her eyes, touches her shoulders and pens
the door.

All morning in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, dozens of people have
been taken from their apartments. Nobody knows exactly how many. Armed
secret police are moving from door to door. Now and again, a volley of
gunshots shatters the silence in the streets. Ahmed, who is in his
mid-50s, steps out of his home straight-backed to conceal his fear.
“They smell it,” he says. “They’re trained for that.” As Ahmed steps
out, I, the visitor from abroad, flee to the back rooms of the
apartment. Ahmed and Faten’s house is my hideout. The family elders
have discussed and decided that they’ve decided to risk everything for
me, their freedom and their lives so that this story can be written.
“You must report!” Ahmed had said. “The world must know what’s
happening in our city!”

The Syrian revolution is the most unexpected of all Arab uprisings
this year. Everyone, even abroad, assumed that President Bashar
al-Assad was immune to unrest given his tight network of some two
dozen competing security agencies. For the past half year, Assad has
used excessive violence against his opponents. Tanks have been firing
on civilians, war ships on cities. But the brutality has so far
achieved only the opposite of what Assad wanted – the protests are
expanding, they’re spreading through the entire country and are
drawing ever more people. Since the beginning of the unrest, the
regime has sealed off its borders to the foreign media. It simply
doesn’t want any witnesses. Officially, there isn’t a single
independent correspondent in the country at the moment. Assad, a
former eye doctor, is all too aware about the power of images. He
knows that the international media will only report what they can
show. If there are no images, then probably won’t be much reporting.
So the world can only see an unfocused and blurry Syria as seen on
photos taken by demonstrators in Damascus and Homs on their mobile
phones. The photos have a faraway quality much like the images that
NASA robots transmit from Mars to Earth. It’s as if Syria has fallen
off the map.

Children become tank experts

I keep my writing pad on the family’s bookshelf. It’s camouflaged as a
Bible to prevent it from being seized. I can feel my heart beating
wildly, leaping right up into my throat. Ahmed walks around the house
and comes in again. He’s unsure. “Maybe it was the boy next door?” he
says to Faten. For a while, the two peer nervously through the white
curtains again. Then Ahmed turns up the television volume while Faten
returns to the kitchen. They cling to every bit of normality they
still have left.

Homs, home to two million people, is a significant and ambitious
economic hub in Syria. It has an oil refinery and is surrounded by
industry. The city has benefited from Assad’s cautious opening of the
economy in the last decade. But many things here have now lost their
original purpose. Streets have become shooting ranges while schools
have been converted into prisons. Tanks are stationed at several
intersections. Children here can easily reel off their various models
T-60,T-62, T-72. Now and again, they shell buildings and homes.

The city has become a battlefield. Most of the shops are closed. Many
residents have fled to the capital Damascus, Aleppo, Syria's second
largest city or abroad if they can. Still, the mass protests continue.
On some days, almost half a million people are out on the streets of
Homs. The neighborhoods in downtown Homs – the heart of the uprising –
are largely Sunni and poor. People here have barricaded their lanes
with uprooted electricity poles, garbage bins wedged in between.
Private cars, parked seemingly accidentally by the roadside, are used
to block streets in an emergency. The army has tried repeatedly to
invade the district. At night, streaks of red gunfire and artillery
light up the sky.

“Does anyone want more ice cream?” Faten asks in a burst of gaiety as
the family sits around the dinner table. Her sons laugh and hold out
their porcelain bowls to her. The 12-year-old Emrad is the one with
the chubby cheeks. Mazen, 25, has changed a lot in the months since
the protests began. He’s usually on the front line of the
demonstrations. But he’s temperamental and has difficulty controlling
his anger. His parents have tried to restrain him and even his friends
have a hard time calming him at the protests. Mazen has beaten up
policemen and has pushed snipers down from roofs. Twelve of his
friends have died in the last weeks; eight alone in the past days.
“Recently, he stood in the kitchen with a bloody T-shirt because he
pulled an injured person off the street,” Faten tells me.

Horrors unfold with clockwork precision

After dinner, Faten is busy washing up when Mazen’s mobile phone
rings. “They arrested a friend of mine half an hour ago,” he calls out
to his mother. “They’re going to get me next,” he says. Mazen presses
his hands to his face. “Now they know my name.” Faten puts aside the
dish cloth.
“What do you want to do?” she asks.
“I have to get him freed.”
“That’s just too dangerous, Mazen,” she pleads.
But what is dangerous in a situation like this? Mazen paces up and
down in the kitchen, making phone calls, organizing his friends. Then
he disappears into the night.

The horrors in this city unfold each night with clockwork precision.
“It’s time,” Ahmed says and leads me quietly and quickly outside to
the car so that no one hears or sees us. The lane lies in complete
darkness. With the neighbors’ help, Ahmed has switched off the street
lights to make it harder for the government snipers to take aim. It’s
shortly before 8 pm, leading up to the moment that all of Homs braces
for each day. The city palpably tenses up. The soldiers travel in
busses to take up their positions. Demonstrators fill the streets.
They head in small groups for the meeting points in their
neighborhoods. There are children among them, some of the boys not
older than ten. As always during Ramadan, they will break their fast
and at 10 pm beat on drums, raise their fists in the air and chant,
“Assad, get out! Assad, get out!” As always, the protests will only
last a few minutes. The army will then begin firing. Ahmed wants me to
meet the organizers of the demonstrations before that happens. He
drives through empty streets full of rubbish past bullet-riddled

As quickly as we came out of Ahmed’s house, we disappear into another
one. Three men are waiting in a dark corridor. They’re around 60 years
old and seem nervous. We exchange firm hugs. I’m the first journalist
they’ve spoken to. They’re risking a lot too by doing that. The three
don’t identify themselves and I don’t ask. They’re businessmen,
members of a committee that coordinates resistance groups in the city.
They decide where and when demonstrations are held. They distribute
megaphones and cameras. “We can’t go back,” one of them says. “If we
stop the protests, we won’t keep them busy anymore. Then they’ll come
and get us – one after another.”

Originally, the protests in Homs didn’t call for the overthrow of the
regime. The people only wanted the local mayor to quit. The men I
speak to say he’s the most corrupt politician in the country, “the
biggest thief,” as they put it. He apparently lined his own pockets
whenever he could. He allegedly imposed a private tax of €1,400 on
every new car and €6,500 on every electricity meter. The government,
however, reacted to the protests with tear gas and arrested half of
the 200 demonstrators. The first protest march called for the mayor to
resign. The second, a week later, attracted 7,000 people. This time
they demanded freedom. On April 18, the residents of Homs seemed to
take their cue from Cairo’s Tahrir Square where Egyptians launched a
successful demonstration to topple Hosni Mubarak. Some 80,000 people
came to a central square in Homs. The atmosphere was euphoric.
Speeches were held, tents were spread out to occupy the square. Many
believed that the pressure on the streets would work. Instead, the
army opened fire at 1:55 am. Hundreds are believed to have died, some
say thousands. Until today, it’s not clear exactly how many people
were killed.

The men glance nervously at their watches. We hastily head back to
Ahmed’s apartment. In the kitchen, Faten explains to me who and what I
need to watch out for in the city. She warns that the surveillance
state looms large in daily life. She says almost all the taxi drivers
are informants for the secret service. The street cleaners are also
dangerous. “Sometimes I see one of them always popping up his head
above our fence,” she says. Faten imitates the street cleaner and
laughs. Her son, Mazen, walks into the apartment, out of breath. His
mobile phone is jammed to his ear. He says he now knows which
intelligence agency has arrested his friend. It’s the military
intelligence, the most notorious of all. “How did you find out?” his
mother asks. “We give them money,” Mazen replies. He says he’s hoping
to buy his friend out of prison through middlemen. That’s how it’s
often done.

Executing the wounded in hospitals

“Come along,” Mazen says to me. Tonight, he wants to show me a
liberated part of Syria. Mazen has brought along 18 men to protect me.
They carry guns under their shirts. We travel in a convoy, three cars
driving one after the other. They’re all linked by wireless
communication. “Sometimes the secret police ambush us but we know the
back roads,” Mazen says. His group forms the militant core of the
protest movement in the poor neighbourhood of Baba Amr, which the army
has been trying to storm for months. Our convoy races through the
city. We stop for red lights at some traffic junctions. At times, we
see cars filled with women and children – remnants of daily life in
the city. Mazen finds out on his mobile phone that the protests have
begun. Twelve people have already been injured; one has been killed.
Our goal is the hospital, “liberated Syria” as Mazen calls it half
ironically. “We ensure it stays that way,” he says.

The hospital is blanketed in blue neon light. It’s flanked by men with
Kalashnikovs standing guard. Mazen proudly tells me that they could
stave off an attack by the military for half an hour. We hurry to the

Women dressed in black fill the corridors. Doctors rush from room to
room, exchanging skeptical looks. An eleven-year-old boy lies on a
blood-stained mattress. His mother sits at the foot of the bed.
Shrapnel ripped into the boy’s right foot. A bullet hit his left foot,
which has swollen to the size of a football. The boy smiles bravely.
In the next room, a man in his mid-20s has a bullet dislodged in his
back. The doctor, who’s checking the catheter, says he’ll probably
never walk again. The next patient was shot in the stomach, another
sustained a gunshot wound in the chest. One man has had a bullet pass
through his leg. There are lots of shrapnel injuries. The doctors
working here risk being imprisoned in dungeons run by Syria’s state
security services. The country’s hospitals are far from being a safe
harbor for dissidents; rather they are a danger. “You come in with a
bullet in your leg. And you come out with a bullet in your head,” an
anti-government doctor in Damascus had told me. At night, intelligence
agents are said to come up to the beds and carry out killings.

That’s why doctors all around the country have built up underground
structures. There are clandestine clinics in private apartments and
secret pharmacies. In a bid to track down wounded anti-government
activists, the Syrian government has placed the disbursement of blood
supplies and medicines against tetanus under a central supervisory
authority. That way, intelligence agencies notice if doctors order a
lot of the supplies. So far, the revolution in Syria hasn’t involved
smuggling weapons but rather plastic bags for blood into the country.

Mazen’s men lead me from room to room. They say I should see
everything except the crazy person in the cellar. He was once one of
them. But now he just unsettles them because he isn’t brave or heroic
anymore. Mazen says he only cries, babbles and smears his excrement on
the walls. The man was released a few days ago from prison where he
was beaten and tortured. The authorities used a razor blade to cut the
skin of his scrotum to shreds. They shoved metal pins under his
fingernails and jolted it with electric shocks for weeks. The doctors
at the hospital have chained him to a wall in the cellar because
they’re worried he might kill himself.
“I won’t let myself be arrested,” Mazen tells his mother later as we
sit drinking coffee in the kitchen back home. He’s been given a Smith
& Wesson pistol today. “I’ll kill myself first,” he says. She looks at
him helplessly.

The city threatens to explode under the enormous pressure and tension.
Almost half the residents are Sunnis, 20 percent are Alawites while
the rest are Christians, Yazidi and Zaidi. The cracks between the
communities are widening each day. The Syrian regime is deeply
suspicious of Homs ever since it rose up in revolt against the Assad
family during a 1982 insurgency by the militant Muslim Brotherhood
drawn from the majority Sunni community. In response, the government
tried to weaken the influence of the dominant Sunnis in Homs. It built
villages around the city for families from Assad’s Alawite minority,
which commands power in the government and military. The Sunnis felt
encircled and threatened. Since the outbreak of the current unrest,
most of the Alawites have fled from the downtown area in Homs. In the
suburbs, Alawite gangs have destroyed Sunni businesses. There have
been reports of deaths. The Alawites have secured the streets leading
to their residential areas with checkpoints. Their street barricades
aren’t manned by the military, but by Alawite civilians who now fear
being massacred in a Syria without Assad. Homs now resembles Beirut in
the 1980s, divided along ethnic and religious lines where it’s too
dangerous for people to travel in a particular direction because they
will be shot if they do so. I sleep fitfully at night. It doesn't help
that a cupboard at the end of my bed holds the evidence of Mazen’s
efforts to build crude bombs.

“This is the fair price that we’re now paying,” Ahmed says the next
morning. “The price for all the years that we stayed silent as a
society.” During breakfast, Faten says that a friend has sent her
pictures on her mobile phone of new tank convoys rolling towards the
city. “What are they planning?” Faten asks. Faten’s friend visited us
just two days ago. She was completely hysterical. Her two daughters
had walked to their school though it was closed for the holidays. The
two made their way to the playground but found it full of blood. “What
does that mean?” Faten’s friend asked her after her daughters came
home crying. “They’re using schools as prisons,” Faten told her.
“That’s what they’re doing all over the city.”

Turning schools into prisons

The secret police who arrested Mazen’s friend a day earlier have
demanded €5,550. The informant has told Mazen that his friend has been
tortured. “Oh God,” says Mazen and paces around the apartment. “I must
do something!” But he doesn’t have the money. His eyes are dark, his
face ashen. He remains strangely vacant even when he’s agitated.

“Where is my son?” Fateh writes today in her diary. “The boy whose
laughter was so infectious, who washed himself thrice a day, whose
hygiene obsession we all made fun of. Where is he now? I miss his
grin, his mischievous smile, his crazy dancing and most of all, I miss
his love for life.”

Much like bees buzzing around their queen, Mazen’s men cluster around
their leader. He’s a young, bearded man to whom I’m introduced to at
the group’s headquarters. He’s charismatic, calm and level-headed. The
men gave him the honorary title “Sheikh” during the protests when he
seemed to emerge as their born leader. “He’s wanted by the
intelligence service – dead or alive,” Mazen says. “We take care that
a lot of young men are always around him.” We’re in a house in a
narrow lane full of guard posts of the anti-government fighters. The
Sheikh has invited me because he wants to introduce me to some special
guests. Young children play around his legs. All visitors have to give
up their weapons. I sit in the Sheikh’s reception room opposite two
men in white robes. I wonder if this invitation is some kind of trap.
“They want to talk to you,” the Sheikh says. The men are high-ranking
intelligence officers in the city. Actually, I don’t want to meet
people like them. The older of the two looks at me and says, “How are

The man exudes calm and has an open smile. He sits straight-backed and
unmoving on the carpet. Only his right thumb twitches nervously. He
tells me that he provides the rebels with information about where,
when and how the security forces plan to attack in Homs. He says he
can no longer watch the killings without doing anything about it. But
he can’t just desert the intelligence service either because that
would endanger his family. “A friend of mine quit his job,” he says.
They came into his house, raped his wife and took him away.” So he
continues to go to his office every morning where he has a desk job.
Almost half his colleagues at the intelligence branch he belongs to
are currently off work sick. He says they’ve bribed doctors to get the
sick leave notes. “Those who’ve already carried out killings can’t
go,” he says. “They’re hunted by both sides.” He says he was once
proud to be an intelligence officer and belong to the country's elite
and serve his country in the struggle against Israel. “Eighty percent
of what we did served as a deterrence and only 20 percent was actual
beatings. Now everything is only about physical violence,” he says.
Earlier, he says, he was always taken out to restaurants for free
meals because everyone tried to be in his good books. The people
respected him, he says. Now, he's happy when no one recognizes him on
the streets. “I am lost,” he says in English.

There are plenty of men like him in the intelligence services. They're
sleeper agents of the dissidents. They're spread across all
intelligence departments. They witness the atrocities, note the names
of the torturers and murderers and keep secret diaries about the
imprisoned and the dead. It's all meant to save them on the day that a
new government comes to power and demands accountability from them.
The man sitting opposite me claims that 120,000 people are currently
in jail. Temporary prison camps have sprung up all over the country –
in cinema halls, factories and universities. In Homs alone,
authorities have converted 25 schools and warehouses into prisons.
“The prisoners are kept there for a week at the most. They're beaten
first, then questioned,” he says. The man gives the names of a few
schools and the Sheikh nods his head in agreement. Three-fourths of
the prisoners are usually released after a week, often after a ransom
is paid. “The president has personally introduced this practice,” the
officer says. He claims the buying back of prisoners helps Assad to
pay his thugs and soldiers because the regime is slowly running out of

Gruesome rumors of organ trade

The officer says the place where the most gruesome atrocities are
carried out lies some 30 kilometers outside the city of Homs. This is
where the military intelligence operates an underground prison in an
industrial area. “That's the worst. The place has a capacity of 10,000
people but it's not full yet,” he says. Some 12,000 dissidents have
died in Syrian prisons for far, he says. 6,000 are missing. They've
disappeared into the depths of a shadowy secret police world to which
his and his colleagues have no access. The officer speaks of mass
graves. He says the military intelligence has dug 32 graves around
Homs. Each contains between 60 and 100 bodies. The security forces, he
says, pack the corpses in trash bags – one over the torso, another
over the legs. Garbage trucks then drive the dead to the graves. Many
of the victims have their organs – the liver and kidneys – removed
beforehand. The officer thus confirms the rumour that the government
is trading in organs removed from dead dissidents. “The organs go to
Lebanon and Egypt. That's what our people posted in hospitals and in
customs are reporting,” he says.

The numbers given by the officer are much higher than those cited by
Syrian opposition groups. The local coordination committee speaks of
2,000 dead and 15,000 people arrested so far. “Those are only the
victims who we know by name,” the group's spokesman says. “Given the
scale of the military operations, I assume that in reality the figures
are much higher.” The intelligence officer who’s been speaking to me
has a request. “You must help us,” he says, referring to the West.
Anti-government demonstrators are still trying to keep their protests
peaceful but he warns that a civil war is inevitable. “Too many people
have died,” the Sheikh chimes in. He says the demonstrators are
beginning to arm themselves. He speaks of hideouts in the neighborhood
for rifles, anti-tank missiles and rockets and even an anti-aircraft
cannon seized from the army.
The intelligence officer claims that around 10,000 soldiers have
deserted in the district of Homs, which stretches up to the border
with Iraq. There are reports of increasing shoot-outs between
deserters and soldiers.

The Sheikh urges me to leave the city

The officer brings up an issue which was taboo in the Syrian
opposition for a long time – a foreign military intervention. “What
differentiates us from Benghazi, from Libya?” the officer asks,
referring to the imposition of the UN-backed, NATO-led no-fly zone
over Libya this year. He appeals to the West to send military advisors
and weapons to Syria. He wants a no-fly zone over Homs. That's
something everyone here seems in favor of – the Sheikh, the three
protest coordinators I met the previous day and even the level-headed
Ahmed. They all agree that NATO must do something for Homs. They say
they're aware of the consequences. NATO, they say, must carry out
massive bombing campaigns and destroy everything that can be even
remotely dangerous for the dissidents. Just like in Libya. Large parts
of the army would then join the opposition. According to them, Syrian
opposition groups abroad have made a mistake by ruling out the
possibility of a military intervention by the West. “They all sleep
safely in their beds,” the Sheikh says. It's not clear to them just
how dramatic the situation in the city has become, he says before
repeating: “We request NATO help us!”

The tanks that set out for Homs in the morning now threaten to
encircle the city. The Sheikh urges me to leave the city in the night
before the escape routes are blocked. I return to Faten's kitchen
table. Ahmed has met in the afternoon with local politicians with whom
he wants to set up a party. The men have already written a large part
of the new party platform. “It's very social democratic,” Ahmed says
and grins. He's exhilarated. Across the country, opposition groups are
trying to form a national interim council much like the one set up by
rebels in Libya, Ahmed says. That would provide a coherent opposition
representative to deal with the West. It's the second attempt to
establish an interim council. The first failed after almost all the
opposition members were arrested.

“Shouldn't we also go?” Faten asks in the evening as Ahmed gets ready
to drive me out of the city. “Is it better to leave Homs? Or is it
more important to stay here?” she says, crying as she loses her
carefully constructed composure. Faten would like to go to her sister
in Damascus but Mazen wants to stay. Leaving would amount to a
betrayal of his dead friends. While his father was busy discussing
rules for the new party in the afternoon, Mazen was on the rooftop
firing his new gun for the first time.

The indiscriminate killings begin unusually early this evening. “What
do I do now?” Ahmed asks, his hands on the steering wheel as shots
ring out around us. He's reached the main road in his car. The
demonstrations haven't begun yet. On either side of the street, young
men stroll to the mosque. Suddenly they head for cover behind fences
and in entrance ways. From our car we see hundreds of uniformed troops
running, stopping, cocking their rifles and shooting. Then they begin
running again. “Stay calm,” Ahmed says, more to himself than to me. He
turns into a side street and hopes that it's safer there. Ahmed got
his car back from the repair shop just two days ago. But by now,
bullets have pockmarked the fenders and the back doors. In the side
street, other cars too are carefully inching forward. The drivers roll
down their windows and give each other advice on how best they can
skirt the danger.

Mehr zum Thema


Faten calls Ahmed on his mobile phone to say Mazen is in the midst of
the demonstrations. Ahmed groans and fights off the temptation to call
up his son. He's worried he could distract Mazen at the wrong time. He
turns right one more time and then again and suddenly we're directly
behind the security forces. Six of their buses are blocking the
three-lane road. Armed soldiers get in and out in groups. Traffic is
jammed behind the convoy, shots are fired in front of it. There are
heavy booms and the rattle of sporadic machine gun fire. The buses
stop for a few minutes and then determinedly roll onward. Ahmed drums
his fingers on the steering wheel. A soldier at the rear end of a bus
suddenly points at me. Three others do the same. But luckily the
convoy reaches an intersection and Ahmed turns off.

Four people are killed that evening and 40 are injured. Mazen will
stay in the hospital all night to protect the wounded. Young men now
want to get out the weapons hidden away in the neighborhoods. A secret
committee of the Syrian opposition arrives from the capital Damascus.
They stay for 15 hours, speak with various groups in several
districts. The time isn't ripe yet, they say, and warn that the
dissidents are still too weak militarily to take on the much stronger
regime. The proponents of a peaceful opposition get their way – once

The next day, thousands of people take to the streets again in Homs.
They're armed with nothing more than their mobile phones.

Translated from German by Sonia Phalnikar.

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