Stephen Starr, an Irish freelance journalist, arrived in Syria five years ago and stayed until “the horrors of the country’s incipient civil war drove me away this month.”
Conversation dies after 11 months of unrest. “What can we talk about?” a state employee asked me. “The news? We’d rather talk about anything else.” Many are not afraid to criticize the regime, but most are too frightened to take to the streets.
Syria’s minorities are frozen in fear. Christians spend hours watching the television station run by Adnan al-Arour, a Salafi Syrian cleric based in Riyadh who broadcasts videos of rebels shouting Islamic slogans and issues threats to pro-Assad minorities while calling for the establishment of an Islamic government. “Who will protect us?” one Christian woman asked me recently. “Will they make us wear Islamic dress?”
Ultimately it was the scenes at Saqba in eastern Damascus that prompted me to leave. An English journalist in Syria on a temporary visa asked whether I was interested in visiting to search out an underground, activist-run hospital. Frustrated at hearing of other journalists making it to Homs, I could not turn down the opportunity.
I saw six bloated bodies hidden under pine trees inside a schoolyard, some missing eyes, lips, noses. Another dead man blackened by fire. They were hidden by locals so that their families could bury them in dignity at a later time, when the regime’s forces left.
I feared that if the Syrian security forces found out what I had seen, they would not hesitate to silence me — perhaps blaming the “armed gangs” for doing so.
As the sound of shells thudding into the Damascus suburbs kept me awake, I got a taste of many Syrians’ fears of the regime’s pervasive security forces. Every morning I held my breath when turning the ignition of my car. Footsteps on the stairs outside my door made me sit upright on the sofa.
The regime remains strong, say many.
State employees are still being paid on time each month. Police can still be seen at their traffic-light posts every morning. Families continue to turn out in droves to eat sandwiches at the few city malls where electric generators help maintain a semblance of normalcy.
Damascenes have lived with this regime for decades and know it only really understands the way of the gun. It is a regime that scoffs at political ideals, a family fiefdom forged long ago in an absurd tribal pride that values a misplaced honor and personal ego over all. It can smuggle and steal, and it is not afraid to shoot and kill –but it will not negotiate or compromise. [Continue reading…]