The Secret War

Undercover in Syria – rebellion in Homs


The knock on the door is soft, barely audible at first. Faten, in the kitchen clearing away the dishes, freezes at the sound. She listens carefully. Her husband, Ahmed, is in an armchair watching television. He turns off the volume and cocks his head to the side. "Shit," he says. The knocking is harder now and more insistent. Loud thuds echo through the apartment. The front door is the only thing that separates them from the terror outside. "Shit," Ahmed says again and rises from the armchair. "Who is it?" He dashes to the drawn curtains and holds his head close to the fabric to peep outside. He looks out the window to the street, over to the neighbour's, then to the courtyard. Faten stands at the peep hole, visibly nervous and agitated. She hesitates a moment before looking out. Suddenly it's quiet. "I don't see anybody," Faten whispers in a voice bordering on panic. She's not usually like this. Faten is the one who's always calm and composed in the family, who tries to laugh off danger with her dry sense of humor. Ahmed goes to her, looks briefly into her eyes, touches her shoulders and pens the door.

All morning in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, dozens of people have been taken from their apartments. Nobody knows exactly how many. Armed secret police are moving from door to door. Now and again, a volley of gunshots shatters the silence in the streets. Ahmed, who is in his mid-50s, steps out of his home straight-backed to conceal his fear. "They smell it," he says. "They're trained for that." As Ahmed steps out, I, the visitor from abroad, flee to the back rooms of the apartment. Ahmed and Faten's house is my hideout. The family elders have discussed and decided that they've decided to risk everything for me, their freedom and their lives so that this story can be written. "You must report!" Ahmed had said. "The world must know what's happening in our city!"

The Syrian revolution is the most unexpected of all Arab uprisings this year. Everyone, even abroad, assumed that President Bashar al-Assad was immune to unrest given his tight network of some two dozen competing security agencies. For the past half year, Assad has used excessive violence against his opponents. Tanks have been firing on civilians, war ships on cities. But the brutality has so far achieved only the opposite of what Assad wanted – the protests are expanding, they're spreading through the entire country and are drawing ever more people. Since the beginning of the unrest, the regime has sealed off its borders to the foreign media. It simply doesn't want any witnesses. Officially, there isn't a single independent correspondent in the country at the moment. Assad, a former eye doctor, is all too aware about the power of images. He knows that the international media will only report what they can show. If there are no images, then probably won't be much reporting. So the world can only see an unfocused and blurry Syria as seen on photos taken by demonstrators in Damascus and Homs on their mobile phones. The photos have a faraway quality much like the images that NASA robots transmit from Mars to Earth. It's as if Syria has fallen off the map.

Children become tank experts

I keep my writing pad on the family's bookshelf. It's camouflaged as a Bible to prevent it from being seized. I can feel my heart beating wildly, leaping right up into my throat. Ahmed walks around the house and comes in again. He's unsure. "Maybe it was the boy next door?" he says to Faten. For a while, the two peer nervously through the white curtains again. Then Ahmed turns up the television volume while Faten returns to the kitchen. They cling to every bit of normality they still have left.

Homs, home to two million people, is a significant and ambitious economic hub in Syria. It has an oil refinery and is surrounded by industry. The city has benefited from Assad's cautious opening of the economy in the last decade. But many things here have now lost their original purpose. Streets have become shooting ranges while schools have been converted into prisons. Tanks are stationed at several intersections. Children here can easily reel off their various models T-60,T-62, T-72. Now and again, they shell buildings and homes.

The city has become a battlefield. Most of the shops are closed. Many residents have fled to the capital Damascus, Aleppo, Syria's second largest city or abroad if they can. Still, the mass protests continue. On some days, almost half a million people are out on the streets of Homs. The neighborhoods in downtown Homs – the heart of the uprising – are largely Sunni and poor. People here have barricaded their lanes with uprooted electricity poles, garbage bins wedged in between. Private cars, parked seemingly accidentally by the roadside, are used to block streets in an emergency. The army has tried repeatedly to invade the district. At night, streaks of red gunfire and artillery light up the sky.

"Does anyone want more ice cream?" Faten asks in a burst of gaiety as the family sits around the dinner table. Her sons laugh and hold out their porcelain bowls to her. The 12-year-old Emrad is the one with the chubby cheeks. Mazen, 25, has changed a lot in the months since the protests began. He's usually on the front line of the demonstrations. But he's temperamental and has difficulty controlling his anger. His parents have tried to restrain him and even his friends have a hard time calming him at the protests. Mazen has beaten up policemen and has pushed snipers down from roofs. Twelve of his friends have died in the last weeks; eight alone in the past days. "Recently, he stood in the kitchen with a bloody T-shirt because he pulled an injured person off the street," Faten tells me.

Horrors unfold with clockwork precision

After dinner, Faten is busy washing up when Mazen's mobile phone rings. "They arrested a friend of mine half an hour ago," he calls out to his mother. "They're going to get me next," he says. Mazen presses his hands to his face. "Now they know my name." Faten puts aside the dish cloth.
"What do you want to do?" she asks.
"I have to get him freed."
"That's just too dangerous, Mazen," she pleads.
But what is dangerous in a situation like this? Mazen paces up and down in the kitchen, making phone calls, organizing his friends. Then he disappears into the night.

The horrors in this city unfold each night with clockwork precision. "It's time," Ahmed says and leads me quietly and quickly outside to the car so that no one hears or sees us. The lane lies in complete darkness. With the neighbors' help, Ahmed has switched off the street lights to make it harder for the government snipers to take aim. It's shortly before 8 pm, leading up to the moment that all of Homs braces for each day. The city palpably tenses up. The soldiers travel in busses to take up their positions. Demonstrators fill the streets. They head in small groups for the meeting points in their neighborhoods. There are children among them, some of the boys not older than ten. As always during Ramadan, they will break their fast and at 10 pm beat on drums, raise their fists in the air and chant, "Assad, get out! Assad, get out!" As always, the protests will only last a few minutes. The army will then begin firing. Ahmed wants me to meet the organizers of the demonstrations before that happens. He drives through empty streets full of rubbish past bullet-riddled houses.

As quickly as we came out of Ahmed's house, we disappear into another one. Three men are waiting in a dark corridor. They're around 60 years old and seem nervous. We exchange firm hugs. I'm the first journalist they've spoken to. They're risking a lot too by doing that. The three don't identify themselves and I don't ask. They're businessmen, members of a committee that coordinates resistance groups in the city. They decide where and when demonstrations are held. They distribute megaphones and cameras. "We can't go back," one of them says. "If we stop the protests, we won't keep them busy anymore. Then they'll come and get us – one after another."

Originally, the protests in Homs didn't call for the overthrow of the regime. The people only wanted the local mayor to quit. The men I speak to say he's the most corrupt politician in the country, "the biggest thief," as they put it. He apparently lined his own pockets whenever he could. He allegedly imposed a private tax of €1,400 on every new car and €6,500 on every electricity meter. The government, however, reacted to the protests with tear gas and arrested half of the 200 demonstrators. The first protest march called for the mayor to resign. The second, a week later, attracted 7,000 people. This time they demanded freedom. On April 18, the residents of Homs seemed to take their cue from Cairo's Tahrir Square where Egyptians launched a successful demonstration to topple Hosni Mubarak. Some 80,000 people came to a central square in Homs. The atmosphere was euphoric. Speeches were held, tents were spread out to occupy the square. Many believed that the pressure on the streets would work. Instead, the army opened fire at 1:55 am. Hundreds are believed to have died, some say thousands. Until today, it's not clear exactly how many people were killed.

The men glance nervously at their watches. We hastily head back to Ahmed's apartment. In the kitchen, Faten explains to me who and what I need to watch out for in the city. She warns that the surveillance state looms large in daily life. She says almost all the taxi drivers are informants for the secret service. The street cleaners are also dangerous. "Sometimes I see one of them always popping up his head above our fence," she says. Faten imitates the street cleaner and laughs. Her son, Mazen, walks into the apartment, out of breath. His mobile phone is jammed to his ear. He says he now knows which intelligence agency has arrested his friend. It's the military intelligence, the most notorious of all. "How did you find out?" his mother asks. "We give them money," Mazen replies. He says he's hoping to buy his friend out of prison through middlemen. That's how it's often done.

Executing the wounded in hospitals

Come along," Mazen says to me. Tonight, he wants to show me a liberated part of Syria. Mazen has brought along 18 men to protect me. They carry guns under their shirts. We travel in a convoy, three cars driving one after the other. They're all linked by wireless communication. "Sometimes the secret police ambush us but we know the back roads," Mazen says. His group forms the militant core of the protest movement in the poor neighbourhood of Baba Amr, which the army has been trying to storm for months. Our convoy races through the city. We stop for red lights at some traffic junctions. At times, we see cars filled with women and children – remnants of daily life in the city. Mazen finds out on his mobile phone that the protests have begun. Twelve people have already been injured; one has been killed. Our goal is the hospital, "liberated Syria" as Mazen calls it half ironically. "We ensure it stays that way," he says.

The hospital is blanketed in blue neon light. It's flanked by men with Kalashnikovs standing guard. Mazen proudly tells me that they could stave off an attack by the military for half an hour. We hurry to the entrance.

Women dressed in black fill the corridors. Doctors rush from room to room, exchanging skeptical looks. An eleven-year-old boy lies on a blood-stained mattress. His mother sits at the foot of the bed. Shrapnel ripped into the boy's right foot. A bullet hit his left foot, which has swollen to the size of a football. The boy smiles bravely. In the next room, a man in his mid-20s has a bullet dislodged in his back. The doctor, who's checking the catheter, says he'll probably never walk again. The next patient was shot in the stomach, another sustained a gunshot wound in the chest. One man has had a bullet pass through his leg. There are lots of shrapnel injuries. The doctors working here risk being imprisoned in dungeons run by Syria's state security services. The country's hospitals are far from being a safe harbor for dissidents; rather they are a danger. "You come in with a bullet in your leg. And you come out with a bullet in your head," an anti-government doctor in Damascus had told me. At night, intelligence agents are said to come up to the beds and carry out killings.

That's why doctors all around the country have built up underground structures. There are clandestine clinics in private apartments and secret pharmacies. In a bid to track down wounded anti-government activists, the Syrian government has placed the disbursement of blood supplies and medicines against tetanus under a central supervisory authority. That way, intelligence agencies notice if doctors order a lot of the supplies. So far, the revolution in Syria hasn't involved smuggling weapons but rather plastic bags for blood into the country.

Mazen's men lead me from room to room. They say I should see everything except the crazy person in the cellar. He was once one of them. But now he just unsettles them because he isn't brave or heroic anymore. Mazen says he only cries, babbles and smears his excrement on the walls. The man was released a few days ago from prison where he was beaten and tortured. The authorities used a razor blade to cut the skin of his scrotum to shreds. They shoved metal pins under his fingernails and jolted it with electric shocks for weeks. The doctors at the hospital have chained him to a wall in the cellar because they're worried he might kill himself.
"I won't let myself be arrested," Mazen tells his mother later as we sit drinking coffee in the kitchen back home. He's been given a Smith & Wesson pistol today. "I'll kill myself first," he says. She looks at him helplessly.

The city threatens to explode under the enormous pressure and tension. Almost half the residents are Sunnis, 20 percent are Alawites while the rest are Christians, Yazidi and Zaidi. The cracks between the communities are widening each day. The Syrian regime is deeply suspicious of Homs ever since it rose up in revolt against the Assad family during a 1982 insurgency by the militant Muslim Brotherhood drawn from the majority Sunni community. In response, the government tried to weaken the influence of the dominant Sunnis in Homs. It built villages around the city for families from Assad's Alawite minority, which commands power in the government and military. The Sunnis felt encircled and threatened. Since the outbreak of the current unrest, most of the Alawites have fled from the downtown area in Homs. In the suburbs, Alawite gangs have destroyed Sunni businesses. There have been reports of deaths. The Alawites have secured the streets leading to their residential areas with checkpoints. Their street barricades aren't manned by the military, but by Alawite civilians who now fear being massacred in a Syria without Assad. Homs now resembles Beirut in the 1980s, divided along ethnic and religious lines where it's too dangerous for people to travel in a particular direction because they will be shot if they do so. I sleep fitfully at night. It doesn't help that a cupboard at the end of my bed holds the evidence of Mazen's efforts to build crude bombs.

"This is the fair price that we're now paying," Ahmed says the next morning. "The price for all the years that we stayed silent as a society." During breakfast, Faten says that a friend has sent her pictures on her mobile phone of new tank convoys rolling towards the city. "What are they planning?" Faten asks. Faten's friend visited us just two days ago. She was completely hysterical. Her two daughters had walked to their school though it was closed for the holidays. The two made their way to the playground but found it full of blood. "What does that mean?" Faten's friend asked her after her daughters came home crying. "They're using schools as prisons," Faten told her. "That's what they're doing all over the city."

Turning schools into prisons

The secret police who arrested Mazen's friend a day earlier have demanded €5,550. The informant has told Mazen that his friend has been tortured. "Oh God," says Mazen and paces around the apartment. "I must do something!" But he doesn't have the money. His eyes are dark, his face ashen. He remains strangely vacant even when he's agitated.

"Where is my son?" Fateh writes today in her diary. "The boy whose laughter was so infectious, who washed himself thrice a day, whose hygiene obsession we all made fun of. Where is he now? I miss his grin, his mischievous smile, his crazy dancing and most of all, I miss his love for life."

Much like bees buzzing around their queen, Mazen's men cluster around their leader. He's a young, bearded man to whom I'm introduced to at the group's headquarters. He's charismatic, calm and level-headed. The men gave him the honorary title "Sheikh" during the protests when he seemed to emerge as their born leader. "He's wanted by the intelligence service – dead or alive," Mazen says. "We take care that a lot of young men are always around him." We're in a house in a narrow lane full of guard posts of the anti-government fighters. The Sheikh has invited me because he wants to introduce me to some special guests. Young children play around his legs. All visitors have to give up their weapons. I sit in the Sheikh's reception room opposite two men in white robes. I wonder if this invitation is some kind of trap. "They want to talk to you," the Sheikh says. The men are high-ranking intelligence officers in the city. Actually, I don't want to meet people like them. The older of the two looks at me and says, "How are you?"

The man exudes calm and has an open smile. He sits straight-backed and unmoving on the carpet. Only his right thumb twitches nervously. He tells me that he provides the rebels with information about where, when and how the security forces plan to attack in Homs. He says he can no longer watch the killings without doing anything about it. But he can't just desert the intelligence service either because that would endanger his family. "A friend of mine quit his job," he says. They came into his house, raped his wife and took him away." So he continues to go to his office every morning where he has a desk job. Almost half his colleagues at the intelligence branch he belongs to are currently off work sick. He says they've bribed doctors to get the sick leave notes. "Those who've already carried out killings can't go," he says. "They're hunted by both sides." He says he was once proud to be an intelligence officer and belong to the country's elite and serve his country in the struggle against Israel. "Eighty percent of what we did served as a deterrence and only 20 percent was actual beatings. Now everything is only about physical violence," he says. Earlier, he says, he was always taken out to restaurants for free meals because everyone tried to be in his good books. The people respected him, he says. Now, he's happy when no one recognizes him on the streets. "I am lost," he says in English.

There are plenty of men like him in the intelligence services. They're sleeper agents of the dissidents. They're spread across all intelligence departments. They witness the atrocities, note the names of the torturers and murderers and keep secret diaries about the imprisoned and the dead. It's all meant to save them on the day that a new government comes to power and demands accountability from them. The man sitting opposite me claims that 120,000 people are currently in jail. Temporary prison camps have sprung up all over the country – in cinema halls, factories and universities. In Homs alone, authorities have converted 25 schools and warehouses into prisons. "The prisoners are kept there for a week at the most. They're beaten first, then questioned," he says. The man gives the names of a few schools and the Sheikh nods his head in agreement. Three-fourths of the prisoners are usually released after a week, often after a ransom is paid. "The president has personally introduced this practice," the officer says. He claims the buying back of prisoners helps Assad to pay his thugs and soldiers because the regime is slowly running out of money.

Gruesome rumors of organ trade

The officer says the place where the most gruesome atrocities are carried out lies some 30 kilometers outside the city of Homs. This is where the military intelligence operates an underground prison in an industrial area. "That's the worst. The place has a capacity of 10,000 people but it's not full yet," he says. Some 12,000 dissidents have died in Syrian prisons for far, he says. 6,000 are missing. They've disappeared into the depths of a shadowy secret police world to which his and his colleagues have no access. The officer speaks of mass graves. He says the military intelligence has dug 32 graves around Homs. Each contains between 60 and 100 bodies. The security forces, he says, pack the corpses in trash bags – one over the torso, another over the legs. Garbage trucks then drive the dead to the graves. Many of the victims have their organs – the liver and kidneys – removed beforehand. The officer thus confirms the rumour that the government is trading in organs removed from dead dissidents. "The organs go to Lebanon and Egypt. That's what our people posted in hospitals and in customs are reporting," he says.

The numbers given by the officer are much higher than those cited by Syrian opposition groups. The local coordination committee speaks of 2,000 dead and 15,000 people arrested so far. "Those are only the victims who we know by name," the group's spokesman says. "Given the scale of the military operations, I assume that in reality the figures are much higher." The intelligence officer who's been speaking to me has a request. "You must help us," he says, referring to the West. Anti-government demonstrators are still trying to keep their protests peaceful but he warns that a civil war is inevitable. "Too many people have died," the Sheikh chimes in. He says the demonstrators are beginning to arm themselves. He speaks of hideouts in the neighborhood for rifles, anti-tank missiles and rockets and even an anti-aircraft cannon seized from the army.

The intelligence officer claims that around 10,000 soldiers have deserted in the district of Homs, which stretches up to the border with Iraq. There are reports of increasing shoot-outs between deserters and soldiers.

The Sheikh urges me to leave the city

The officer brings up an issue which was taboo in the Syrian opposition for a long time – a foreign military intervention. "What differentiates us from Benghazi, from Libya?" the officer asks, referring to the imposition of the UN-backed, NATO-led no-fly zone over Libya this year. He appeals to the West to send military advisors and weapons to Syria. He wants a no-fly zone over Homs. That's something everyone here seems in favor of – the Sheikh, the three protest coordinators I met the previous day and even the level-headed Ahmed. They all agree that NATO must do something for Homs. They say they're aware of the consequences. NATO, they say, must carry out massive bombing campaigns and destroy everything that can be even remotely dangerous for the dissidents. Just like in Libya. Large parts of the army would then join the opposition. According to them, Syrian opposition groups abroad have made a mistake by ruling out the possibility of a military intervention by the West. "They all sleep safely in their beds," the Sheikh says. It's not clear to them just how dramatic the situation in the city has become, he says before repeating: "We request NATO help us!"

The tanks that set out for Homs in the morning now threaten to encircle the city. The Sheikh urges me to leave the city in the night before the escape routes are blocked. I return to Faten's kitchen table. Ahmed has met in the afternoon with local politicians with whom he wants to set up a party. The men have already written a large part of the new party platform. "It's very social democratic," Ahmed says and grins. He's exhilarated. Across the country, opposition groups are trying to form a national interim council much like the one set up by rebels in Libya, Ahmed says. That would provide a coherent opposition representative to deal with the West. It's the second attempt to establish an interim council. The first failed after almost all the opposition members were arrested.

"Shouldn't we also go?" Faten asks in the evening as Ahmed gets ready to drive me out of the city. "Is it better to leave Homs? Or is it more important to stay here?" she says, crying as she loses her carefully constructed composure. Faten would like to go to her sister in Damascus but Mazen wants to stay. Leaving would amount to a betrayal of his dead friends. While his father was busy discussing rules for the new party in the afternoon, Mazen was on the rooftop firing his new gun for the first time.

The indiscriminate killings begin unusually early this evening. "What do I do now?" Ahmed asks, his hands on the steering wheel as shots ring out around us. He's reached the main road in his car. The demonstrations haven't begun yet. On either side of the street, young men stroll to the mosque. Suddenly they head for cover behind fences and in entrance ways. From our car we see hundreds of uniformed troops running, stopping, cocking their rifles and shooting. Then they begin running again. "Stay calm," Ahmed says, more to himself than to me. He turns into a side street and hopes that it's safer there. Ahmed got his car back from the repair shop just two days ago. But by now, bullets have pockmarked the fenders and the back doors. In the side street, other cars too are carefully inching forward. The drivers roll down their windows and give each other advice on how best they can skirt the danger.

Faten calls Ahmed on his mobile phone to say Mazen is in the midst of the demonstrations. Ahmed groans and fights off the temptation to call up his son. He's worried he could distract Mazen at the wrong time. He turns right one more time and then again and suddenly we're directly behind the security forces. Six of their buses are blocking the three-lane road. Armed soldiers get in and out in groups. Traffic is jammed behind the convoy, shots are fired in front of it. There are heavy booms and the rattle of sporadic machine gun fire. The buses stop for a few minutes and then determinedly roll onward. Ahmed drums his fingers on the steering wheel. A soldier at the rear end of a bus suddenly points at me. Three others do the same. But luckily the convoy reaches an intersection and Ahmed turns off.

Four people are killed that evening and 40 are injured. Mazen will stay in the hospital all night to protect the wounded. Young men now want to get out the weapons hidden away in the neighborhoods. A secret committee of the Syrian opposition arrives from the capital Damascus. They stay for 15 hours, speak with various groups in several districts. The time isn't ripe yet, they say, and warn that the dissidents are still too weak militarily to take on the much stronger regime. The proponents of a peaceful opposition get their way – once again.

The next day, thousands of people take to the streets again in Homs. They're armed with nothing more than their mobile phones.




home top