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Omar

Testifying from the front lines of Syria's uprising

Anti-regime protestors shout slogans in Syria [AFP]

Date of publication: 16 March, 2015

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Blog: The uprising started as a series of peaceful demonstrations, but grew into open warfare after violent and aggressive attacks by regime forces on protesters.
Not a day went by without me running into a friend who had suffered at the hands of the security men from the government institutions riddled with corruption. You would hear about this tension at home, at the coffee shop and even at the falafel shop.

When the Arab Spring started with the revolution in Tunisia, I was in the army, since military service is compulsory in Syria. When I heard the news of Ben Ali's escape that morning, I saw the sun of freedom rising and I felt that the Arab Spring would soon be coming to Syria.

I went to the office of the officer I was working with at the time.
     When I heard the news of Ben Ali's escape that morning, I saw the sun of freedom.


His family was from Damascus, and we had already talked about the bad situation in Syria.

That day I told him: "Congratulations, God willing, we will be next."

He was shocked, and said: "Don't talk like this. You don't know how this will end." 

A volunteer sergeant from Idlib overheard what I had said. "Amen," he replied.

That morning I became optimistic. I felt that the Arab Spring was coming to Damascus. It is true that my supervisor that day felt scared, but he had already told me that Syria deserved a better regime, free from corruption and the security services.

My military service ended on 1 February 2011, and then I started my life as a civilian Syrian citizen - where all I could think of was finding a job to kick-start my new life.

Social media networks had been censored in Syria, but the regime lifted the ban on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. As a result, I started seeing thousands of pictures and videos critical of the political situation and the muzzling of free expression.

For the first time in my life, I started hearing about people who were opposed to the Assad regime. Then I was surprised that there were unidentified people who started websites that called on Syrians to rise up and demand freedom, and the end of the repression by the security services.

     
Video of protests in the early days of Syria's uprising were widely
shared on YouTube
[alAraby cannot be held responsible for content
of third-party sites]



There were calls to demonstrate in front of the Syrian parliament, a demonstration which did not materialise, especially after the internet was disconnected in Syria for unknown reasons.

On 2 February 2011, a group of young people in Bab Touma lit candles in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. Some, including Suhair Alatysi, were arrested by the security apparatus.

It was the first time I heard his name.

Also, for the first time, people dressed in civilian clothes who became later known as "thugs" appeared at protests and started beating up those who called for freedom. The police did not interfere to protect anyone.

Learning from history

I knew what rising up in the face of such a regime meant.

In 2004, the Kurds rose up to demand their rights, so all the roads leading to Al-Hasakah and Qamishli were closed. Then, weeks later, we heard about the dozens of deaths under torture and even live ammunition.

The security apparatus said the Kurds wanted to break away from Syria and join the Kurds of Iraq in Kurdistan.

So I already knew that any attempt to demonstrate against the system meant death or waiting to die in detention centres such as Sednaya or Tadmur prisons.

     
Video of protests in the early days of Syria's uprising were widely
shared on YouTube
[alAraby cannot be held responsible for content
of third-party sites]



On Tuesday, 17 February 2011, a friend who owned a shop in Hamidiyeh market in the old city of Damascus called me saying he had something important to tell me.

He told me there had been a demonstration that day and one of the security men beat a citizen so hard the protester lost an eye. People gathered and demanded accountability. "Syrians will not be humiliated," began the chant.

I asked him to repeat the story more than once, as I did not expect demonstrations in Damascus because of the grip held by the Assad regime on Syrians in the capital.

Then he told me about the people who were working with the Syrian intelligence services who got themselves into the middle of the crowd of demonstators and started to shout: "With our blood, with our soul we will save you, Bashar."

No one responded to them. Those people were later called "thugs". 

I knew then that the fear barrier had been broken, especially since news of the incident had spread across Syria, and news outlets started reporting it - except for the regime outlets who never mentioned it.

Many Syrians were closely watching what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt.

I began to see this video on social networking pages, and then I began to see the word "freedom" for the first time. People began spreading this word and made it the core of their demands in Syria.

On 27 February 2011, intelligence services arrested several children in Daraa because they wrote the words "freedom" and "your turn is next, doctor" on the walls of their town.

The children's arrest angered many Syrians. People on social media started talking about a "day of wrath" and called for a demonstration in the Hamidiya market near al-Harikah market, which was where the first demonstration took place.

The second demonstration in Damascus took place on 15 March 2011. I went to the area but, quite frankly, was very worried that the security apparatus had called for the arrest of regime opponents who wanted to start a demonstration.

When I went to my friend's shop, I started hearing people calling for freedom and reform.

I saw people running to join the demonstration for freedom in the streets of Damascus, and the proclaiming of "the Syrian revolution".

Calling for freedom

When I reached the protest, there were around 2,500 people, all calling for freedom. What was interesting was the number of Syrians who just came to watch. It was as if  they were saying 'we are with you and we want what you want, but we fear the wrath of the regime and the intelligence service'.

After about 15 minutes, some people began chanting: "With our blood, with our soul, we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar," and then they started throwing stones and beating demonstrators and arresting some people and handing them over to members of the security.

Many people were forced to flee, fearing those people who were later called the "thugs".

The thugs managed to break up the first official demonstration, but no one could stop the beating of my heart and the spread of the smile across my face. Yes, this was the first time in my life that I had loudly and openly expressed what I had wanted for a long time.

I still cannot forget those feelings or even fully articulate them. Back then I was 28 years old. I had never participated in any elections in Syria because we all knew the result before the polls even opened.

I am also a member of the Arab Socialist Baath Party. When I was in middle school, aged 13, one of the teachers brought me a paper and asked me to sign my name. I was later surprised to find that I had become enrolled in the Baath Party.  

From that moment, all my hopes and dreams were for freedom in my country, where I could exercise my right for elections - along with all the Syrian people. I also learned that the regime was the only thing standing between us and freedom.

The next day, on 16 March 2011, around 300 Syrians organised a sit-in protest in front of the the ministry of interior in Marjah Square in downtown Damascus, chanting for freedom. Soon again came the thugs, again chanting: "With our blood, with our soul, we will sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar."

The security apparatus showed up and broke up the sit-in, beating up demonstrators and arresting around 25 people.
 

     
Video of protests in the early days of Syria's uprising were widely
shared on YouTube
[alAraby cannot be held responsible for content
of third-party sites]

 
On 18 March 2011, after intelligence services refused to release the children of Deraa, hundreds protested against the arrests and corruption and demanded freedom and reform.

They chanted against Atef Najib, Bashar al-Assad's cousin and the commander of the security branch which arrested the children of Daraa.

The regime's response to the demonstration was to fire directly on the demonstrators, killing four people - the first martyrs of the Syrian revolution.

There was also a peaceful demonstration inside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Demonstrators could not  leave the mosque because of a blockade of thugs and members of the security services, and because worshippers were being beaten, arrested and abused.

The Syrian intelligence services did not open fire inside the city of Damascus.

A number of demonstrations where also held in Deir al-Zour, Banias in Tartous and in Homs.

     
Video of protests in the early days of Syria's uprising were widely
shared on YouTube
[alAraby cannot be held responsible for content
of third-party sites]

 


This is when people were shocked because live bullets were used on the protesters.

I started to talk with all my friends who opposed the Assad regime and to organise meetings to coordinate efforts to mobilise large demonstrations that the regime could not break up.

Unifying the movement

We also talked about organising demonstrations in squares in Damascus such as the Umayyad or Abbasiya squares.

We were able to communicate with members of the political opposition, such as George Sabra, Hazem al-Nahar and Fayez Sara.

We also talked with people outside Syria, so that we could unite our efforts, but unfortunately the regime created military barriers between neighbourhoods within and outside the capital, and deployed a large number of thugs in the streets of Damascus, especially inside the mosques in an attempt to prevent any large gatherings.

In Daraa, people mourned their martyrs and turned their funeral into a massive demonstration demanding freedom.

     
Video of protests in the early days of Syria's uprising were widely
shared on YouTube
[alAraby cannot be held responsible for content
of third-party sites]



The regime's reply was to send in forces and shoot into the crowd of peaceful demonstrators, leading again to a number of fatalities.

We met a number of people, and representatives of regions in Damascus and its surrounding countryside in an attempt to organise peaceful demonstrations in Damascus.

Some people, including myself, called for toppling the president.

Others were wary because of the abundance of the security services, and said that turning Syria into a place of freedom and pluralism would automatically lead to toppling Assad's reign.

We agreed to demonstrate every day in either one of the mosques of Damascus because that was the area that broke the barrier of fear. We decided not to stop until we encouraged other areas.

The last of these demonstrations was in Baghdad Street, about 200 metres away from the intelligence services.

On Friday 24 June 2011, the demonstration did not last more than ten minutes because of the attacks by the thugs and the intelligence services.

Some of my friends were wounded. Others were arrested.

Demonstrators disappeared from the streets of Old Damascus and went on with their lives. This was the last demonstration I took part in.

State security officers went to my house and searched it. This made me convinced that there could be no peace with the Assad regime.

So I moved from demonstrating in the city of Damascus to East Gota. Since then, I have not been able to return to Damascus to protect myself or my family - and I continue my revolutionary path.


In the interests of our writer's security, we have decided not to publish his full name.

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