DAMASCUS, Syria — Outside Syria, the story of the uprising has become the bombs and bullets, the armed insurgents against the ruthless regime, the fractious exiled opposition and the endless merry-go-round of dead-end diplomacy.
But as night falls across the northeast suburbs of Damascus, Samir, Abu Rami and Mona prepare to do what they’ve been doing since the start: protesting peacefully for freedom.
On one recent night, they sang and danced in Qaboun and Berze, a few kilometers northeast of the capital, gathering before their protest in safe houses to agree on slogans, paint banners and prepare the new green-striped flags of revolutionary Syria.
Despite their commitment to nonviolent protest, however, not one of the three activists believes anymore that a political solution or an exclusively peaceful uprising is possible.
“The regime pushed us to be more radical and adopt the armed resistance while maintaining our peaceful protests,” said Samir, a 28-year-old graduate and key protest organizer in Berze. “For a year the regime sent its dogs to shoot us, but with protection from the Free Syrian Army they will think twice before doing that now.”
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Where earlier protests took place in built-up areas, today the activists try and gather away from family homes, in the fields between the two small towns, sending scouts to survey the area for secret police or pro-regime “shabiha” militia before calling protesters out.
Abu Rami, a pensive 35-year-old protest organizer from Qaboun, said his network had recently begun cooperating with the armed groups of the Free Syrian Army and dismissed the latest diplomatic efforts by the United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
“The world wants to see Syria now as a humanitarian issue. But we are struggling to end our dictatorship,” said Abu Rami. “If Annan comes to Syria just for a cease-fire and to deliver some aid I am sure the protesters will not accept this plan.”
Since nominally agreeing on March 25 to Annan’s cease-fire plan, due to come into force on Tuesday, the Assad regime has escalated attacks on rebel fighters and civilian areas of Homs, Idlib and Hama, killing more than 250 people, including 69 on Thursday alone and a further 28 on Saturday, according to reporting by opposition activists.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement Saturday deploring “the assault by the Syrian authorities against innocent civilians, including women and children, despite the commitments by the government of Syria to cease all use of heavy weapons in population centers.”
Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Damascus who was forced to leave the country in February citing security concerns, said Assad's forces appeared to have pulled back from some towns and cities ahead of the cease-fire, but in other areas troops and armored vehicles have been kept in place or shifted around.
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Ford said he was basing his information on satellite images before and after the alleged pullouts, which were posted on the US embassy Facebook page. But while some troops were redeployed, others were kept near rebel-occupied towns. Arrests, sweeps and the artillery bombardment of opposition strongholds have continued, Ford's statement said.
"This is not the reduction in offensive Syrian government security operations that all agree must be the first step for the Annan initiative to succeed," he said in a statement.
As the regime’s assaults on the opposition continue, the situation for activists in Qaboun and Berze provides a microcosm for the self-reliance and grim determination that now binds their community together.
Mona is 22, a conservative Muslim who wears a traditional white head scarf and a long blue overcoat. Online, she helps spread the word about protests in Qaboun among female friends. While in safe houses, Mona helps organize medical kits and stitch banners and flags.
But when she talks about the life of the opposition in Qaboun, Mona’s insights resonate with the experiences of what sounds very much like war.
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The security forces’ campaign of arrests last summer, just before the holy month of Ramadan, had decimated the ranks of the activist leadership in Qaboun, Mona said. Protest sizes fell from a high of some 15,000 to only a few dozen people.
“The key activists were arrested, so ordinary protesters couldn’t organize big demonstrations,” she said.
For several weeks, there were almost no protests in Qaboun. The activist leaders were held for several months but most were eventually released from a prison system where Human Rights Watch says widespread and systematic torture constitutes crimes against humanity.
But the protest movement had already moved on.
“We went on to reorganize ourselves with different leaders,” Mona said. “The first generation of leaders were open and trusted anyone who said they were against the regime. Now we work in smaller groups and each person knows the other and has trusted him or her for several months. Our new protests are not as large, but they are more organized and this is very important.”
Mona doesn’t support rebel fighters attacking conscript soldiers serving in Assad’s army: “They are from us. Each Syrian family has a son or brother serving in the army.”
But after living through a year in which many hundreds of local protesters were either arrested or killed, and after seeing school children beaten and injured by secret police when they tried to protest after classes, Mona has no problem advocating violence against the plain-clothed security forces.
“The FSA should attack the secret police and the shabiha. This is a good thing and I think all Syrians welcome it.”
A GlobalPost journalist, whose name has been kept secret for security reasons, reported this story from Damascus. Hugh Macleod contributed reporting from Beirut.