Smuggled by anti-regime fighters across the Lebanon border and into the heart of the uprising, I found fearless protesters, calls for intervention, and the growing threat of civil war
Still image taken from video shows purported members of "Free Syrian Army" firing at a convoy of government security buses in the village of Dael / Reuters
Qutaiba, a 22-year-old engineering student, had never been arrested before Syrian security forces detained him at a checkpoint in a suburb of Damascus and dragged him to a military base. At the time, he didn't know if he would survive: activists like him were disappearing, sometimes turning up later as mutilated corpses. But he did survive, and what he went through would later lead him to me.
When Qutaiba arrived at the military base, at first he was left to stand outside, hooded, hands cuffed behind his back. It seemed as if everyone walking past gave him a kick, a punch, or a blow from a rifle butt. After maybe 15 minutes, he was taken to see the officer in charge, a colonel. The hood was removed, though not the handcuffs.
The colonel, looking the prisoner up and down, asked, "Who hit this guy?"
"It was Abdullah," one of the guards answered.
The colonel shouted for Abdullah, who quickly arrived.
"You motherfucker," the colonel spat at the soldier. "If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times: No one. Should touch. Any. Citizen."
On the word "citizen" the colonel's hand flew out and smacked Qutaiba on the side of the head. The blow sent him crashing to the ground, looking at their boots. The officer had struck him "with the flat of his hand, but it was a strong one," he later remembered. The colonel remained silent. The guards and Abdullah laughed uproariously.
Then he was taken away to be beaten and tortured over a period of weeks. It was not sophisticated or inventive. Electric shocks while he lay on the floor in a pool of water. Endless kicks and punches that would leave his guards exhausted at the end of each flurry. For the first five days, they didn't even ask any questions. That came later, the initial pummelling just to soften him up.
Always, he tried to remain standing. "When you are on the ground, they will hit you more," he said. "They were doing Debke on my body," he told me, naming the Arabic folk dance that means literally "stamping of the feet." He laughed at that, and good-naturedly, and as he remembered each taunt from the guards. "This is for Facebook." Smack. "This is for Twitter." Punch. "This is for CNN, for the BBC, for Al Jazeera." A drumming of feet. "Look, we've caught the leader of the Syrian revolution."
"As soon as the buses stopped, they got out and started shooting. There wasn't a single shot in the air."
I met Qutaiba in an upmarket coffee shop in Beirut, where he had fled to after being released. At the next table, men wearing leather jackets and Rolexes were puffing on fat cigars. Stylish, well-dressed 20-something women greeted one another with air kisses. Six-foot-two, handsome, relaxed, and smiling throughout his story, Qutaiba didn't look at all out of place.
He had been picked up by the feared Air Force Intelligence, al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya. Syrian activists talk a lot about Air Force Intelligence. Hafez al-Assad, the former president and father of Bashar al-Assad, had commanded the air force, making its security arm one of the most powerful of Syria's dozen or so secret police organizations. They were brutal but incompetent, Qutaiba said. They fumbled so long over logging in to his Facebook account that by the time they did another activist had managed to get in to delete everything. They couldn't open the flash memory card full of opposition literature and videos, he laughed.
The only time he did not break into his story with an easy smile was when he came to how he had been caught. It was an informer, a "rat.," he believes. His suburb of Damascus had many of them, he said, who often conducted their business in the open, because they were so sure of the regime's protection. "They are proud that they are doing this ... every month, there is a crackdown. They are the people who are preparing the lists."
The "rats" were the biggest threat to the revolution, he believed, which was why he had come to Lebanon to buy silencers for pistols to use against suspected loyalists. "We got to a situation where either we kill them or we really hurt them to send out a message."
Qutaiba had started out in April as a peaceful protester and had continued that way for many months. His personal trajectory is in some ways like that of Syria's revolution and of Syria itself. The struggle with the government is becoming increasingly militarized; there is a small but growing insurgency.
Many inside and outside Syria worry it may end in a civil war, perhaps a sectarian conflict pitting majority Sunnis against the Alawites, a minority that includes the Assads, and their Shiite and Christian allies. Qutaiba is a practicing Sunni but he told me that the Syria he wanted, the Syria he was fighting for, would be democratic, free and pluralist. During one week in late November of travelling covertly inside Syria, meeting protesters, opposition activists, and fighters, I heard the same thing over and over. But people know what to say to outsiders. Sometimes, what they said to each other was different.
We -- a BBC cameraman Fred Scott and I -- entered Syria the same way that Qutaiba's pistol silencers were going in, smuggled over the border from Lebanon. The men we joined were not professional smugglers but activists who were supporting the Syrian Free Army, an informal network of defected government soldiers. They were taking in medicines and weapons and bringing out the wounded, an underground railway working in both directions.
The light was fading as we reached a Lebanese border village, where a casualty had just arrived by motorbike. There were three people on a tiny 50cc machine: one driving, another behind with the injured man carried horizontally in his arms, unconscious and bleeding. They laid him on the floor in the back room of a farmhouse. A doctor bent over him to apply fresh bandages. "I am just a GP," he told me. "This man needs a surgeon." There were two bullet wounds. The doctor gave him a 50-50 chance of surviving, though even those odds were thought better than what he would get in a government hospital, where security forces look for wounded fighters.
A smuggler named Hassan had brought the injured man in. He offered to take us over back over the border on his motorbike, one at a time. We were still waiting for a bag of our equipment so we refused, a decision that may have saved our lives. Hassan waved and drove off up a dirt track leading into Syria. An hour later, we heard long echoing bursts of automatic fire. Villagers gathering around the back door of the farmhouse, swapping news. Hassan had been captured by a Syrian patrol, one reported. No, said another, he had been captured but he had escaped. He had been shot, said a third. We still did not know what had happened, except that Hassan had not come back by the time another group of smugglers came to fetch us, three hours later.
We took a different route than Hassan's and went on foot. It was around midnight and chilly when we set off, six men, each carrying a sack of ammunition and two or three Kalashnikovs for the fighters inside. They spoke in tense whispers as we crept through apricot orchards and across fields. There were mines, they said, and the Syrian Army had recently reinforced the area. "Now you have to tip toe, like a ballet dancer," said one of the smugglers under his breath as we prepared to cross the heavily patrolled asphalt road that marked the border. This time, there were no soldiers. We made it over and, a hundred yards further on, found a small truck waiting for us. Everyone piled in and we were taken to the first of many safe houses.