By Mónica G. Prieto, Homs (Siria)
Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
A drum’s rhythmic beat sets the pace of the protesters. A young man, 23 year old construction worker until the revolution, chants songs echoed by the others. “What a shame Bashar, that you remain president being a criminal”. “Go away, Bashar”, the crowd shouts back. Among cries and chants, a male voice comes through a speaker. “Stay away from the checkpoints specially. They shoot to kill, so we repeat over and over again: do not go close to them”. Futile advice: the population of Homs has learnt to avoid, as much as possible, these checkpoints, as well as the avenues, where snipers fire indiscriminately at anyone who moves.
Until the bombings became constant, protests were still being held all over Homs. On Fridays, thousands of people went out on the street; the rest of the week, hundreds gathered in the neighborhoods, isolated from one another by military posts, to chant slogans against Bashar al Assad’s regime and show signs urging the international community to act.
“Freedom for our brothers and sons in prison”. “Stop the massacre”. “Where is the Arab League?”. “We are not Shiite, Alaouite or Sunni: we are all Syrian”. Muted cried in a revolution whose legitimacy is questioned by many, driven by the propaganda that labels as terrorists a civil population united in its call for freedom regardless of their social class, age and religion. A population determined to carry on until the end, because each new crime the regime commits renews their strength.
There are no weapons in sight at the protests, unless someone might try to consider as such the loudspeakers carried by the ones who direct them. None of the supposed terrorists Bashar al Assad claims to be fighting either, just men, women, teenagers and small children, ubiquitous in the marches and with the firm will to expose what is going on in Syria.
“In the West, security forces are there to protect the citizens, here they kill us. They only provide security for the murdering regime”, said a student that identified himself only as Bilal in one of the marches held shortly before the bloody offensive in Homs, in the Inshaat neighborhood. “But their crimes give is courage. If we stop they will murder us, they will come to our homes to arrest us, this government is out of its mind”, added another college student next to him. Both of them, like many people we spoke to, asked the international community to declare a no-fly zone that stops the Syrian forces from attacking the protesters.
“Our president is a brainless rat”, says another woman who is taking part in the protest. She must be about 50, speaks perfect English and is still shocked after she found out the day before the consequences of an explosion in three homes where five members of a family died, four of them children, in the nearby neighborhood of Baba Amr. “We are being murdered and no one cares. The shabiha [pro-government militias] are kidnapping and raping little girls. They are raping Syria”.
Another woman of the same age shows up and asks to talk to the journalist in perfect French. “How can someone who was brought up in Europe, who knows what democracy is, do this to us? How can his wife remain silent, not flee the country to not be an accomplice of this massacre?”. “Look, they are murdering us. They do not return the corpses to us until the family signs a document saying that the victim died in the hands of terrorists. My husband runs a private clinic: they came in at five in the morning and took the eight injured people he was treating. Some were in the intensive care unit: they ripped off their life support and threw them on the floor, and started to kick them. Two of them died right there; the rest were taken to the army hospital”.
They all have some atrocity to tell. A death, an arrest, a disappearance, a close case of torture. All of them curse the Syrian regime, and all of them find new reasons to go out on the street. “We have been waiting for this moment for years”, says Leila, a college professor. “This is being very hard for us, even though we have been used to these criminals for 40 years. But the international community is negotiating with him under the table, the population is not its priority”, she regrets. “As long as Bashar stays, we will continue protesting because, if we abandon this, we will all be arrested”.
Abu Fares, 72, declares that he has been “praying all his life” to live this revolution. Him, his wife, his children and grandchildren have been taking part in the protests since they began, and says that they won’t quit in spite of the fact that his son Abu Nur, 35 years old, is recovering from the second sniper shot he has received in the past few months. The first time was in Baba Amr on May 6th, when he was hit in the stomach; the second one, four days before the interview: he was trying to rescue an injured man who lay on the street when a bullet tore through his arm and his back.
Abu Nur rests in the traditional Arab entrance hall, the warmest room in the house since it is the only one with a gas heater and, therefore, the family’s sleeping room during these days of winter and military siege. He has difficulty sitting up. “I will keep protesting until I die”, he says after a pause, looking straight in the eyes. Next to him, his father points out: “He still has a last battle to fight”. “We will not surrender, we will not step back until the time of our death”, the wounded man goes on. His words recall a writing that can be read on a wall near his home that says: “We will never kneel down”.
Graffiti, unknown in the Syria of the dictatorship, is now everywhere in Baba Amr. There is a certain sense of freedom on its streets, defended from the Syrian Army by the small militia of defectors that make up the Free Syrian Army, which holds this neighborhood in Homs as its only stronghold in the country. The children improvise protests with slogans against the regime and in favor of the FSA, the adults do the same gathering in small groups of neighbors who, armed with a loudspeaker, shout out loud everything they could not shout in 40 years of dictatorship.
“We want freedom, for our deceased and for our rights”, explains a college student in one of the night protest in the insurrect neighborhood, which were held every day before the offensive. “We have tried to ask Turkey for help, the Arab League, the international community, and nobody supports our right to freedom. Now we don’t want anyone anymore. God will help us win our revolution”.