Ian Black reports: Sipping tea in a smoky Damascus cafe, Adnan and his wife, Rima, look ordinary enough: an unobtrusive, thirtysomething couple winding down at the end of the working day in one of the tensest cities in the world.
But like much else in the Syrian capital, they are not what they first seem: normally, he is a software engineer and she a lawyer; now, they are underground activists helping organise the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
It is dangerous work. Over the past 10 months, thousands of Syrians have been killed – perhaps twice the 5,000 figure given by the UN – as Assad has pursued a ruthless crackdown that shows no sign of ending. But his opponents are equally determined to carry on.
Adnan and Rima are unable to work or contact their families. They have false identities. Adnan changes his appearance regularly. He has just shaved off his beard. It clearly works: a friend at a nearby table fails to recognise him.
Most of their friends are on the run from the mukhabarat secret police. “It used to be scary but we’ve got used to it,” said Adnan. The revolution destroyed the wall of fear. At school, we were taught to love the president – Hafez – first. And it didn’t get any better when Bashar took over. Now, everything has changed. Assad’s picture is defaced everywhere and we are certain that at some point we will topple the regime.”
On the face of it, Damascus is calm. The bloodiest frontlines of the revolution may be in Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, but the appearance of normality in the capital is deceptive. Intrigue, fear and anger are just below the surface.