A Syrian Activist Speaks From Damascus

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Do you think the army will defect?

The problem is not with the army though it is a major factor in this struggle. The problem is with the security forces. The army doesn't go with tanks into narrow streets which is the architecture with most cities in Syria.

But the economy is suffering. The business class in Damascus will suffer soon. I've heard rumors that shabbiha gangs have quit because of lack of payment. Is that true?

There's been no evidence of this. We hear such things here too. But we don't count on any of it. It's so empowering to hear such rumors but they're not true. Taxi drivers in Damascus (most of them are security agents) keep talking to us about how Sunnis want to kill Alawites. So it is a matter of survival for them.

So what can the West do at this point to help the opposition?

Have consistent rhetoric, an escalating tone. Like you heard Clinton say that Gaddafi will fall in few days. Then he stays for months -- until we hear it from a military man and it comes true. They keep saying Assad is losing his legitimacy. We know this. So there is no real added value about this. Same with Turkey.

But Obama said that Assad must go. That was a big announcement.

It was, yes. So I am saying that if they want to have any rhetoric let it be this way, escalating and consistent. Turkey can impose a safety zone. Air cover above Syria maybe to make the regime feel naked and spotted. And let Google Earth for God's sake share some of its private images [of Syria]!

Can we talk about your arrest?  What happened to you?

You mean the interrogation?

Yes. What did they arrest you for, what was their excuse?

Many things, that I wrote anti-regime statements and articles. I criticized Bashar's first speech, wrote about Rami Maklouf, wrote about how they treated the children in Deraa and how "Salafist" it is to stop electricity and break pens.

I know this must be difficult, but can you describe what it was like in prison?

They blindfolded me and insulted me. The beatings started in the car. I was taken to an unknown destination. They ordered me to take off my clothes, then wear them again. I was in a single cell until midnight. Then they beat me again with my eyes covered. I was asked questions, then taken back to my cell. I got to eat three times. The bread and the plate [of food] was delivered through the upper small window in the iron door.

How did they beat you?

With their hands and with a cord. It was hard to know what they were doing, I didn't see it as my eyes were closed. They also hurt my legs when I was on the ground. When I screamed they said, "You're screaming like a bitch... Now you're so scared!?" They also insulted my family and my origins, I'm Palestinian. They'd taunt me, "Why didn't you go and fought Israel?" Then they'd hit me again. They took me back to my cell, then to another area of the prison which I could see. They'd said I was going home now, and it turned out they were "joking." So I was taken to another area and beaten and asked to remove my clothes again. I was asked about my personal life and sexual relations, if I drank or not. I said I did. They asked what kinds of drinks. I said vodka and beer and wine only. They asked, "You don't drink arak?" They made fun of me. They were bunch of lazy and ill-mannered guys. I was kept awake until 4 o'clock in the morning, with loud voices playing from the recorder.

How long did they detain you?

Five days only.

When they let you go, did they warn you not to write or say anything else? How did they threaten you?

I went to the court. The judge didn't want to release me in the first place. He wanted to send me to prison right away, until I had my court.

But then I negotiated with him, and I said "I can't, I'm so tired. I can't go back to prison." Then two charges were set against me -- that I was attacking the dignity of the nation and sowing public disorder -- and I was temporarily released. When Bashar offered amnesty to political prisoners, the case was dropped automatically.

You're trying to get your family out of Syria now.

Yes.

Where would you go? Lebanon? Turkey? If you're Palestinian, can't UNRWA help?

I was planning to go to the United Arab Emirates, but they don't give visa to Palestinians. So maybe no one can help.  UNRWA has taken its distance from everything since day one. Anyway, I can't myself leave the country. I want my family out. It's hard to decide. When I see Ali [Ferzat] or others being beaten and killed everyday, I say I cannot leave. My name is definitely on the borders guards' list.  So it's hard to tell what to do and why you are doing this and not that. I can't stop protesting. Every protest is a story. We finally can shout. We can hear our own voice.

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Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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