Hot line with the Syrian protesters

As I was having breakfast today I watched the news with a different eye. I had grown weary of the early morning al Jazeera newscast reviewing a series of demonstrations in Syrian cities just introduced by a short commentary announcing the place. It was always same shaky images of vocal crowds parading through the streets while shouting the same slogan, “Down with the President!”.

As this insipid presentation could not win me over, I had unconsciously somewhat accepted the thesis of the Syrian regime that accuses foreign governments and medias to kindle the rebellion or at any rate exaggerate its magnitude. But since Saturday something changed.

No sooner had I come home from Elena’s birthday party, at half past midnight, than I turned on the computer for a moment’s distraction before going to bed. I opened a language exchange site I am a member of, and among others in the chat room there was someone from Syria. I rang him up with the intention of having a chat in Arabic.

This was not the first time I had talked to Syrians since the protests began last March, and I’ve met people of all ideas, some lukewarm to the prospect of political change, others that sounded more like observers of events taking place somewhere else and of course the inevitable blatant regime supporters who assured me that what I saw on the news was all rubbish and make-believe because nothing at all was going on in Syria. All was quiet.

The country is in fact split between those who would have all to lose from a shift in power, even if they were given a freer country to live in, and those who can risk all because it’s not much. The social fabric is rent between the sunnis, the majority religious group, who are fighting for a better political outlook firmly held in their hands, and the minorities who see much uncertainty in their future status after the present regime promoted, if anything, what looked like peaceful cohabitation in a region where sectarian tensions constitute a constant threat to the State’s security and the citizens’ welfare. The spectre of violence between social groups is looming large.

Abu Abdo was not his real name, but it’s just excusable he didn’t want to reveal his identity. He’s from Hama, the central Syrian town that is sadly famous for the 1982 events that brought about the final extermination of the Muslim brotherhood as a political dissident group with the use of heavy artillery shelling by Hafiz al Asad, the present President’s father.

If you visit Hama today you’ll see a town different from others in Syria, not just because of the ancient norias creaking in the Orontes, lazily lifting irrigation water to the level of the surrounding plains, but because it’s a modern-looking town with relatively new buildings facing the river. The old city was in fact blotted out by a pitiless military assault on the brotherhood that destroyed the old districts and took a terribly heavy toll on human lives, estimated to have been in the thousands, although nobody has ever been able to establish the figure independently. The Baath party had chosen the hard line and taught dissenters a lesson never to be forgotten. Its ways would be feared ever since.

But elephants don’t forget, and although the young generations didn’t live through the ferocious quenching of the unrest 30 years ago, this town is still regarded as potentially dangerous for the survival of the status quo. There is a smouldering sentiment of revenge, an outstanding account that remains to be settled.

In spite of the bad network that made Abu Abdo’s voice sound faint and quavering, his message came strong and clear. The town, he said, was practically besieged by tanks that impose a ban on gatherings. If it were not so, the residents would pour down into the streets in the thousands and march under the banners shouting “Down with the President”. They can’t stand the present situation any longer and electricity is in the air.

“but what about the risk of being killed or wounded? Are people not afraid?”, I asked. Think as I might, I could never have guessed Abu Abdo’s reply.

“This state of terror is making us protesters even bolder. Now everybody has a relative or a friend who was shot, injured, brutalised or arrested and tortured by the security forces and the notorious shabiha (the armed gangs that crack down on the protesters). Do you think we could stop showing our indignation and grief for the loss of our neighbours at the hands of these criminals in power? It’s the only thing we can do, for whatever that costs.”

When al Jazeera showed yet again images of some nondescript Syrian demonstration this morning, I was not thinking of a media blow up anymore. I had heard the direct voice from the streets of Hama and I had tears in my eyes thinking of those who were willing to pay with their blood for the freedom of their country.

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