September 1, 2011


Syria's Sons of No One (ANTHONY SHADID, 8/31/11, NY Times Magazine)

The Syrian uprising began in mid-March in the hardscrabble town of Dara'a, about 160 miles from here, after 15 teenagers were arrested for writing antigovernment graffiti on school walls. The teens were reportedly beaten, and some of them had their fingernails pulled out. Their mothers were threatened with rape. The revolt spread quickly from Dara'a throughout the country and has become the most violent in the Arab uprising, rivaled only by Libya, but Libya was a civil war. More than 2,200 Syrians have been killed and thousands more arrested in the relentless government crackdown. Protests after Friday prayers have become ritual, and in response to them the military and security forces have assaulted many of Syria's largest cities -- Latakia, Homs, Hama, Deir al-Zour and, of course, Dara'a -- the violence so pronounced that the United States and European countries have demanded President Bashar al-Assad end his 11-year reign.

Iyad, a young father who named his newborn daughter after Dara'a, showed off a bandaged right knee that was grazed by a bullet. Abdullah pulled up a picture on his computer of one of Homs's first martyrs, a 19-year-old named Amjad Zantah, who was killed during the government's attempts to crush the earliest protests in the city. I'd been covering the uprising since its beginning, but the question that still eluded me was how the Syrian youth -- the shabab -- keep fighting in the face of such withering violence. How can laptops and cellphones and bags of nails and pipes that shoot onions be any match for one of the Arab world's most fearsome police states? And how can an eclectic array of leftists, liberals, conservatives, nationalists, Islamists (themselves diverse) and the disgruntled and downtrodden prove unified enough to bring it down?

"Tunisia won, Egypt won, and we're going to win ourselves," Abdullah said when I asked him about the odds they were up against. "There's no going back."

His words reminded me of an anecdote from Islamic history known by all these youths, schooled as they were in a country that celebrates a glorified Arab past as state propaganda. In the eighth century, the Muslim general Tariq bin Ziyad led his troops to Gibraltar, then burned his own army's ships after the soldiers disembarked. "Oh, my warriors, where will you flee?" he asked them. "Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy. You have left now only the hope of your courage and your constancy." Abdullah and the others understood the story's meaning. "We know the Syrian revolution is here," Iyad said, pointing to his sinewy biceps. "It's up to us." [...]

Over 40 years of dictatorship, the Assads cauterized any expression of dissent, enforcing silence, and most prominent dissidents have spent years in places like Tadmur, a notorious regime dungeon. One of them, Riad Turk, a veteran communist imprisoned for nearly two decades, once told me he endured his isolation only by accepting that his life outside had come to an end. He spent day after day fashioning landscapes on a cement floor with pieces of discolored rice that he had removed from his meals and let dry. At the end of the day, he swept the scene away and began a new one in the morning. Yet after the security forces withdrew in June, Hama's citizens began to tentatively speak for themselves. The educated elite -- doctors, engineers, lawyers -- communicated with a 60-year-old cleric, Mustafa Abdel-Rahman, who heads a prominent mosque. Sheik Mustafa, in turn, negotiated with the governor, who answers to Assad. It was a remarkable development, perhaps the first time in decades in Syria that the exercise of power was a dialogue.

No one really talked to the youth, though. Not that it mattered to Obada and his friends. They had no faith in their elders, either. "What controls Hama now is the shabab," Obada said. "We've forgotten our disagreements until we get rid of this regime."

They imposed their own 10 p.m. curfew on the town. They figured out ways to deliver bread to the checkpoints they manned on their own, in daytime and nighttime shifts. Obada fed raw footage to Al Jazeera. His friends made YouTube videos that became, by Syria's standards, Internet sensations. "Come On Bashar, Leave," was the most famous. They even started cleaning the streets. "We had to," Obada said as his friends fired up the water pipes. "The smell was killing us."

It was 1 a.m., and Obada's cellphone rang again. Another protest had convened in Assi Square, prompted by the simple fact that it could happen. The other day, Obada told me, youths had organized five demonstrations in a single day. He smiled. "We just wanted the chance to start," he said.

Moises, the photographer, and I returned to Homs the next day, arriving at Iyad's father's house, where Abdullah and his friends were sleeping after their "hot" night. We had planned to leave from there for the border, then head back to Lebanon. But soon after we arrived, Iyad told us that villagers along the border had been killed the night before in what looked like sectarian vendettas. No Sunni dared go through an Alawite village, and vice-versa. Since the smuggling routes that would take us back to Lebanon snaked through those villages, we were stuck, at least for a while.

We sat for hours, talking and drinking tea, and it soon became clear that the other youths treated Abdullah, the computer engineer, with deference. Like the others, Abdullah seemed courageous, but he didn't share their youthful bravado. His religious faith was formidable, the kind that doesn't compromise before authority or custom or age.

"For the old people, the terror is still there, in a way we can't imagine anymore," he said. "Even the children were nursed at their mother's breast with fear." Others listened respectfully, including an older relative of Iyad's who told me he had a doctorate. "The Syrian revolution is an orphan," Abdullah went on. "It has no father and no mother." It had only them, he suggested.

Abdullah estimated that 100 people in Homs were directing the protests, which had now become better organized. The youth would sometimes wear armbands designating a task: breaking up fights among one another, cleaning up the streets after they were finished and delivering food to demonstrators. There was even a health committee to treat the wounded. No one dared to go to hospitals anymore, Abdullah explained, fearful that security forces would arrest them or do worse. Iyad swore by rumors that agents had executed the injured, in their hospital beds, by injecting air into people's hearts or shooting them in the head and blaming it on crossfire. So in past weeks, the youths had set up one-room clinics in their neighborhoods, where the wounded were treated. "There are 10 people who think and 100 who act, but the security forces can never figure out which is which," Abdullah told me. "Now we've managed to build a state of organized chaos."

Posted by at September 1, 2011 6:27 AM

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