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.