The Stalled Revolution: Ten Days With Syria’s Besieged Protesters
On a Monday in late February, I received a Facebook message from a Syrian activist notifying me that a demonstration was due to start in half an hour in a heavily guarded section of Damascus. The occasion was a funeral, and so the protest was likely to be large. “Two of the five martyrs are children, and funeral processions for children are always big,” the message explained.
I took a cab to the Kafr Sousa district, an area that is home to many government buildings, and walked for 20 minutes, until I came upon about 75 casually dressed men toting machine guns. These were the shabiha—the plain-clothes, pro-government militia who have taken the lead in suppressing the rebellion. Their presence suggested that I was headed in the right direction.
I followed a barely perceptible trickle of young people down a residential side street. Old men stood around nervously, as if waiting for something to happen. A boy of about ten came darting up the middle of the street, his face partly obscured by a hoodie. “Allahu Akbar,” he shouted as he ran. I fell in behind him and, after passing another line of heavily armed men, there it was: a nondescript mosque with several thousand ululating mourners huddled outside.
The body of a twelve-year-old boy was being held aloft on a wooden board—he had apparently been shot by the army during a previous protest. I could see no Western journalists or anyone from Syrian state television. Locals had clambered on the back of a disused truck and were shooting footage on iPads and digital recording devices. When I took out my phone to take a picture, however, a masked man approached and suggested that I put it away.
For a time, the shabiha looked like they might not let anyone leave. Eventually, however, the funeral procession began to move, with a group of teenagers at the front. A bearded man told me that this was common: Young people “have more energy than us,” he said, “so they take the lead.” I approached a nattily dressed young man in his mid-twenties wearing a beret and a cardigan, and introduced myself as a journalist. “Have you Coke and onions?” he replied. This response was not as nonsensical as it sounded: When the demonstrations are targeted with tear gas, protesters rub Coca-Cola into their eyes and use onions to take care of the acrid smell.