Syria: ‘Now this is a war’

Pro-democracy protesters talk to ‘Maclean’s’ about the toll of fighting the regime and their fears for the future

'Now this is a war'

AFP/Getty Images

With scores of people seemingly dying by the day, the situation in Syria appears to be spiralling even more out of control as the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad tries to hang on to power. But the brutality of the government’s response to pro-democracy protesters has been ongoing for almost a year—and the victims will bear lifelong scars from their experiences. Yahya Hawash, 27, is among them. When he joined the peaceful demonstrations in Damascus last April, he was filled with hopes for the future. Marching with the crowds through the city streets brought an unprecedented exhilaration, and a fleeting taste of freedom. Almost a year on, paralyzed from the waist down and hiding from the “shabiha”—government thugs—Hawash spoke to Maclean’s about the innocence of those first days, his ensuing ordeal, and the fears he holds for his country that is now plunged deep into civil war.

“We were at the demonstration in al-Midan in central Damascus in April last year—thousands of people had gathered,” he says. “We were unarmed, just calling for freedom. We didn’t imagine in those days that the security forces would shoot.” The first rounds came within minutes of the demonstration beginning. Panicked demonstrators tried to flee, scrambling over the wounded, pushing into side alleys and back streets to get out of the “kill zone.” Hawash saw a friend hit the ground as a bullet smacked into his head. He was trying to drag the body from the street when he felt a searing pain as a bullet entered his back. Then everything went dark.

“There were six of us taken to hospital,” recalls Hawash, where the staff treated them like traitors. “They handled us roughly, they pushed injections in in painful ways, and spat insults at us. If someone threw up from the pain, they would beat him.” But nothing could have prepared Hawash for what happened next. Three armed security officers in leather jackets, with moustaches emulating the small one sported by Bashar al-Assad, stopped at the bed beside his. “I overheard a security man say, ‘He was injured in the protest. Let him die,’ ” says Hawash. Hospital staff then wheeled the sedated man to a nearby operating theatre. Then, says Hawash, “We heard gunshots. They killed him there in the operation room. There is no question.”

Paralyzed from the bullet that had shattered his sixth and seventh vertebrae, Hawash says he “begged for my family to take me from the hospital.” Frightened, his family used their contacts, seeking advice from a sympathetic high-ranking member of the Syrian armed forces. He advised them to move Hawash to another hospital, but to tell the staff that he was hurt by “terrorists that are against the regime.” His brothers moved him by taxi: “When I arrived, I said that ‘gun groups’ had shot me and that I loved President Bashar al-Assad,” says Hawash. “They looked after me after that. But always I was frightened that the security forces might come for me.”

After a month in hospital, Hawash returned to his home in Barzeh, a poor district of central Damascus. In the months that have passed since he was hurt, more of Hawash’s friends have been murdered, and dozens arrested in government crackdowns. Over 30 people have been killed in the community of Barzeh alone, he says. A mostly Sunni area, the restive district has maintained near-daily demonstrations, amid moments of fierce violence. “Police were patrolling our neighbourhood,” recalls Hana, an Arabic teacher who has given her life to ousting the regime. “Mohammed, a friend of mine, threw stones at them from the balcony. He was shouting at them to leave us in peace. After one hour, more than 100 police came. A group entered and ran up the stairs—they broke down the door to his home and killed him in front of his children. Then they kicked him out onto the street. They left his corpse on the ground and one officer said, ‘You want freedom? Here is your freedom!’ ”

Much in the neighbourhood is conducted secretly. Too frightened to go to government hospitals after hearing stories of Hawash and others, the wounded are treated in medical safe houses, relying on whatever supplies can be smuggled in, and whatever medical expertise they can find. In recent weeks, as the regime bombards Homs and the Damascus suburbs, the people of Barzeh have also seen hundreds of fleeing families seek refuge in their neighbourhood. Fearful of being punished for helping “traitors,” activists operate in secret, smuggling blankets, water and baby food to the places where the refugees are accommodated. “Many people don’t dare to house them because they are afraid they will be questioned,” says Hana, as we drive through Damascus, medical supplies hidden under the front seat.

Hana’s mother recently found a newlywed couple sleeping in a city park, with no possessions but the clothes in which they had fled. She knew that housing them could mean arrest or worse for her or her family, but she couldn’t leave them in this pitiful state. “They are young, she is just 17, and he is 20. They fled the war in Homs.” Hana’s mother said, “ ‘What happens to me, God can decide.’ We took them into our house, gave them clothes and food and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone that you are here.’ ”

Gradually, the residents are learning to fight back. Two forms of secret service now lurk on Barzeh’s streets—those for the regime, and those for the opposition. Young men lean against walls covered in blacked-out anti-regime slogans, ready to blow the whistle when police enter the district for the almost-daily house raids. The opposition’s watchmen also report news of “spies” to armed rebels in the neighbourhood. Men found informing on the activists, or sometimes those who simply sided with the regime, have been found assassinated in their homes. Shop owners who don’t abide by the frequent calls for strikes have found threats and a warning “X” spray-painted on their shopfronts.

The numbers of the opposition activists and protesters, even in the capital, have been burgeoning. Protests that lasted minutes or were violently dispersed have now turned into crowded, near celebratory affairs “protected” by armed militias. Men sporting balaclavas and clutching Kalashnikovs are stationed on rooftops, or in the darkened alleys leading to the protests. “People didn’t dare to come here at the beginning, but when they knew their soldiers were here to protect them, the numbers grew day by day,” Hana says over the noise of one demonstration.

One night, in the central square in Barzeh’s old town, men, women and children shout for the downfall of the president. The rebel flag waves above the crowds, and a child no older than 12 stands on a makeshift podium leading the chants.

“Death to President Bashar al-Assad!! Kill him now!”

“We trust first in God, and then in our Free Syrian Army!”

Across the capital, activists say that men are secretly being armed. “Now this is a war,” says Hana, her female compatriots nodding. “Before we did not want to kill anyone, we did not want to use weapons, but now we don’t see any other way.”

This story was reported by a Maclean’s correspondent whose name has been withheld for security reasons.


Syria: ‘Now this is a war’

  1. It is a shame that the west stand motionless in face of the child killing/molesting dictator and his gangs of perverted killers. They are allowed to roam free and terrorize people while we watch….

    • This comment was deleted.

      • you are the prime example of an American idiot. Your ignorance is very common amongst Americans, but you carry the torch for ignorance. I hope you don’t bring any kids into this world, this world is much better with out ignorant idiots like you.

        •  If Americans are ´´idiots´´ how come the middle east are always calling out for their help. Im not even American, I live in Uruguay, and to be honest, YOUR society has gotten into the shithole you are, all because you accepted the Islamic bullshit way of life and didnt stand up for yourself along with the billion of muslims that want out.

          •  The same way all countries fought for independence, now you stand the fuck up and fight for yours, after that im pretty sure the whole world will help with basic resources.

            But dont expect anything if youre not willing to do anything.

  2.  please stop bulshiting .. enough is enough .. where was the west when because of your stupid invasion of Iraq more than million  Iraqi Christians were evicted, killed and their churches burned to the ground … where were you .why we did not hear about it in the news .. why????. now you are worried about Syria .. now you care …now you want peace ..you want those radicals Islamist to take control of the country .. it seems one Christian genocide was not enough for you in Iraq .. you want to repeat it again in Syria  .. has anyone of you .. stupid west … thought about the Christians living in Syria .. they are around  2 million and they have been living peacefully there .. Syria and Lebanon + Iraq previously were the only places where Christians are allowed to practice freely.. you destroyed Iraq .. killed its Christians and now you want to do the same in Syria ..

    in 1918 chritsian genocide took place in southern turkey .. more than 1.5 miilions were slautered and the rest fled to northern Syria .. and recently another one took place in iraq… why all this hatred .. why …  if you destroy the only remaining havens (Syria and Lebanon) what will happen to us .. we all here about Jewish genocide.. and we feel sad about that .. but what about us …  Please for the love of god stop supporting the stupid radicals islamists  who are fighting there against the government .. please be publish the truth .. do not be a vehicle for killing the last remaining christians in the middle east .. anyhow .. i know this is useless .. this means nothing to you ..all i can say is shame on you .. for participating in our slauter

  3. “lost cause”
    Christian have been living in peace with Muslims for generations before Assad and his gang of Alawites. They do not need protection. Iraq is a completely different situation. Most christians I know (including myself) do not want anything to do with with this regime of butchers. The threat of something worse emerging out of this situation is a flawed and really tired argument. There is NOTHING possibly worse than the human rape that Bashar is administrating right now.

    •  Nomorepeace11
      excuse me .. but tell this to my grandfather and grand mother who were forced to leave everything behind them in 1919.. in Turkey ( ironically who is so concerned with Freedom these days).. and had to flee with their lives..  u r saying Iraq is different … why ??  please do me the pleasure of your explanation ..u r saying bashar is Butcher according to whom.. to you.. or to the thousands of forged videos which have been published in the media ..(and btw admitted that it was forged by stations like france 2 and ARD germany and others ).. IT SEEMS YOU  like to see what you like to see … what about the massacres in Jerser al Shogour .. did u see how these peaceful (hehehe) radicals butchered the men there and cut them to pieces and throw their remains in the river .. of course not (you don not want to see)..   did u hear the news that they shelled the Monastery of Sednaya ..how many of these peaceful gangs u r defending are actually al qaideh (admitted by the Americans FYI) ..

      you are saying that Bashar is a butcher .. ok.. should i just repeat what you wrote above .. or should i type it again for you … YOU WROTE “before Assad and his gang of Alawites.” so you are considering 10% (Alawites) as gangs .. is this the freedom and democracy you are talking about .. by discriminating and calling bad names to an entire sect in Syria …

      Please talk about yourself only.. (if the Christians were against )…were are they in the demonstrations .. were are they in the news .. why their areas are peaceful and calm.

      please lets stop bulshiiting ourselves ..

       .. i am almost 100% that you are not christian and sure that you are one of these closed minded extremest who have spread nothing but hatred ..  if you were a christian … you will not write like this .. you will not write with hate..

      when i wrote what i wrote yesterday .. i wrote it because we (middle east Christians) are the only who always end up getting killed .. it is time to stop it .. it is time to tell the world that we have the right to live .. we have been there since Jesus Christ and Syria/ Lebanon .. have always been the haven for us ..and this regime which you are hating so much .. has provided nothing but a peaceful living to us ..

      if you were really christian who was living in the middle east  .. you would understand my point..WHICH IS VERY VERY DOUBTFUL…

  4. This isn’t a war, it’s genocide, or put it another way, mass-murder.

    • You’re right, but it’s non of our business. We have no clue what’s really going on in Syria, all we know is what our bias media tells us, but you are absolutely correct.

    • and when u invaded Iraq and when u destroyed Libya (were clashes are still taking place) it was not mass-murder .. should i continue ..  i wonder why we only see .. the dirt in others eyes while we ignore the bricks in our own eyes..

      • We didn’t destroy Libya. Iraq was an atrocity and the entire Bush Administration should have been tried and the higher-ups quite honestly should have been executed.

        What you need to understand is who is really behind this all. Educate yourself on American history, and follow the money. A small number of the wealthiest Men in the World, the ones who control the banks in the Americas and Europe, they have a monopoly on every fabric of society except for the internet (which they are currently working on taking over) We are facing the darkest times in human history, a Fourth Reich is approaching and the People of the World will need to join together if we have any hope of defeating them.

        Put aside your petty hatreds and understand who the real enemy is. The United States of America is not the country our Founders envisioned, and they even predicted what has happened to our Republic. They warned that America and liberty would die when the banks and corporations snaked their way into politics and world-governance. More and more are waking up to the realities we face, and this New World Order will have meet much resistance around the World.

        Power to the People, liberty for all, equality.

        • i totally accept what u r saying .. just a small point.. i want to clarify .. as i said.. my intention was not to judge anyone.. u said petty hatred .. who said i hate Americans .. all i am asking and will ask again .. is for you guys to stop destroying us .. to stop supporting thoes who kill us (the last remaining Christians in the middle east) .. i wonder .. is it too much to ask . or that means nothing to you as well ??

        •  I agree with you David. Religion is a tool used by the ruling aristocracy as a smoke screen to hide the real truth:they are the aristocracy and we are the working class proletariat that feeds their wealth. We are expendable at any time by the aristocracy because we are a ‘commodity’ that replenishes itself.

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