A portrait of President Bashar al-Assad has been attached to a Syrian flag by pro-regime supporters. © Louai Beshara - AFP/File
Eliot Benman
Last updated: January 2, 2012

Protesting in the Lion’s Den

Eliot Benman reports on the challenges facing a group of young activists calling themselves the Damascus Youth Union for Change (DYUC).

Ten months ago, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Damascus came alive with colorful demonstrations. A huge crowd gathered in front of the central bank chanting their support for President Bashar Al-Assad. Young men and women hung out of car windows waving flags and pictures of their beloved leader. School children could be heard singing the President’s praise from their classrooms.

The festive atmosphere has long since evaporated. With a brutal military crackdown ongoing in the outskirts and suburbs of the city, a fearful uncertainty has settled over the city center. According to residents of the capital, Damascenes now regard each other suspiciously, not knowing who is pro- or anti-government. An army of security forces watches passers-by closely. Occasionally the tense calm is broken by a burst of gunfire or a distant explosion.

And every so often, after the sun has set behind the surrounding mountains, voices calling for freedom can be heard rising above the din of traffic.

Despite the intense security presence guarding the epicenter of the regime’s power, a group of determined young activists calling itself the Damascus Youth Union for Change (DYUC) continues to organize small demonstrations in the very heart of the city. Their marches often take them just meters away from some of the most heavily guarded government institutions in the capital.

The two biggest urban centers in Syria, Damascus and Aleppo, have yet to witness mass demonstrations like those seen in other Syrian cities. The lack of enthusiasm from Aleppo and the Damascus city center has disheartened weary protesters who have taken to the streets in virtually every other area of the country, calling for the downfall of President Al-Assad’s regime.

“It is the capital. If it is calm, we will send a bad message to the world and to the other cities,” says Rami, a protest organizer and administrator of the union’s facebook page. He asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution.

Support for the regime is arguably one reason Damascus has remained calm. DYUC activists, however, believe the people are on their side but have a strong incentive to remain silent – fear of the government’s brutality. During a recent protest, members of the union experienced the regime’s ruthlessness firsthand.

On December 12, DYUC members gathered in front of the Russian Culture Center in the heart of Damascus to denounce the Russian government’s position towards the uprising. No sooner had they begun to chant for freedom, when they were beset upon by a group of men in civilian clothing yielding chains and clubs.

The swift and brutal response left DYUC activists wondering if their organization had been infiltrated.

A divided city

In the weeks following the end of the Ramadan, the Islamic month of prayer and fasting, a blossoming protest movement in Damascus had begun to lose steam. The Damascus Youth Union for Change was founded by a group of young, independent activists to revive the movement.

“The government detained many activists and many people hid from the government and they were followed by the government. This is why we did not do activities after Ramadan,” explains Rami, who now resides in a neighboring country after protesting in Damascus. “Then we got together, we friends in Damascus. We said we have to do something, we have to make the capital work like the other cities.”

Dania, who also asked that her real name not be used, is a founding member of the group. She says that the union’s members include people from different social backgrounds and areas of the city, including members of Damascus’s upper class. Though the Syrian regime claims that they are fighting against Islamist militants, Dania denies that there are any religious extremists in the union.

“I used to be a very normal person before all this, but I feel very bad when I see someone being killed or tortured,” she says. “This is how most of us feel. We don’t go to protests for anything else except for justice, freedom, dignity, and human rights.”

The union’s protests are sometimes met with mixed reactions on the streets. Activists say they usually see signs of sympathy in the neighborhoods through which they pass. Residents wave from windows or clap to show their support. Some recite prayers.

At other times, the protesters run into government supporters. They sometimes verbally and physically attack the peaceful demonstrators, claims Dania, especially if the protest is small.

Partisans of the government may be in the minority in Syria, but in Damascus it is a considerable minority whose support for President Al-Assad is unyielding. The deep divide and suspicion between residents only increase the danger for protesters.

“We are from the same families, the same universities sometimes, because it is safer,” says Rami of the union’s members. “If you meet someone from another place and he is supporting the revolution, how can I tell that he is not really mukhabarat (secret police) or shabiha (government militia)?”

Throughout the revolution, the regime has also mobilized its supporters in the streets of Damascus, of course producing a much larger turnout than the few dozen who usually participate in the DYUC protests. Although the government does bus in students and employees of both government agencies and private companies, opposition activists realize much of the support at the demonstrations is genuine.

“When I see these people, I know they are afraid of change, they are afraid of the unknown,” says Rami of government supporters.

Facing down the regime

Throngs of jubilant government supporters is the image of Damascus that the Syrian regime wishes the world to see. At the same time, security forces exercise brutal tactics against those that dare to descend to the streets with a different political opinion. Members of the DYUC risk imprisonment, torture, and death.

“When we go, we know we might not get back home,” explains Dania. “We say goodbye to our families. I personally do this. I say goodbye to my mom and to my dad and to everyone.”

Several of her friends participating in demonstrations in the capital were killed by security forces, Dania says. Many others were arrested.

“They take people and arrest them and torture them to give them names of their friends,” she explains. “So whenever one of our friends is arrested we feel very sad, and hurt and also afraid, because those friends might say our names when they are tortured.”

According to the UN Human Rights Council, a systematic government crackdown has left over 5,000 people dead, including over 300 children, with thousands imprisoned and subjected to torture.

To minimize the danger while protesting near government institutions and other sensitive areas, organizers plan meticulously, coordinating with each other online. The protests must be short, often no more than 3 minutes, and routes chosen carefully to best avoid security forces. During the union’s first five protests, security forces only managed to arrest several protesters, activists say.

One of the most brazen protests brought demonstrators within blocks of the Interior Ministry building. Other protests passed by the headquarters of the state news agency, the Syrian Arab News Agency, and a state security branch headquarters. Participants carry signs and chant slogans calling for the downfall of the regime.

The protests are filmed and the videos posted on the union’s facebook page and circulated among social media websites. Sometimes the videos are picked up and broadcast by the media.

Amid the intense security, however, even the most meticulous planning cannot guarantee the safety of the protesters. As demonstrators gathered for the protest in front of the Russian Culture Center, they quickly realized that something had gone wrong.

“As soon as we gathered and we only started to demonstrate, we saw men attacking us,” recalls Dania. “They attacked the men, the young men. They were holding iron chains and .”

Dania claims that a 19 year old protester was wrestled to the ground and severely beaten by a group of the attackers.

“Me and my friends tried to help them,” she says. “We were crying, trying to take them from their hands. And then they became very crazy, very angry, and we saw their weapons. They shot in the air.”

A video posted on the union’s facebook page afterwards clearly shows a group of men armed with clubs assaulting demonstrators in front of the cultural center. Screams and gunfire are heard and women can be seen scuffling and arguing with a group of men. Meanwhile, motorists look on from the road.

Fortunately all the bullets that night went into the air, but four women and six men were arrested, according to activists. The four women were later released, but the fate of the men is still unknown.

In a city where government eyes are everywhere, residents bitterly divided and where nearly anything can be accomplish by a large enough bribe, activists fear their activities may not be as secret as they would like. Even so, they continue planning for the next protest.

‘We will be peaceful forever’

Dania says her fears fall away as the protests begin. She is proud to stand up to what she sees as a brutal dictatorship. How she feels afterwards depends on what happens during the course of the demonstration.

“Sometimes I get back home feeling very proud and happy and strong,” she says. “Other times when they attack us, when I see them beating my friends, arresting them, I feel very, very angry. It’s anger. Most of the time I feel very angry.”

Despite the anger, DYUC activists are determined to remain peaceful.

“Me and my friends, we will be peaceful forever,” Rami vows. “We will not use force, never, ever. I don’t know about other groups in Damascus, but me and my friends, our union, this is our aim, to stay peaceful.”

However, activists warn that time is running out for a peaceful solution.

“We are still being patient,” Dania says. “I do think that we can defeat the regime by protesting peacefully, but we need some observers to come and for the media to come to Syria to help protect us.”

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