By Sean T. Serioca
"They don't know anything about Internet, they asked me: "which is your address?" to know my name on Facebook and my email. In Arabic "address" ('anwan) stands only for the place where you live, so I told them my address in Homs and they started again shouting to humiliate me. If it was true that they had information, why they didn't show me something I did online? You see how humiliating it is to be controlled by such people?" While Wassim, an activist from Homs, recalls his days in prison, it reminds me of when I was arrested and interrogated by the security forces in Damascus. As a foreigner, I wasn't beaten or humiliated, but the impression I got of their stupidity was identical, while they searched my bag and questioned me meticulously about the content: some lyrics of Fayruz and a Lonely Planet guide.
Wassim is now in Damascus, waiting to be reassured by some friends that he is not on the list of wanted people, in order to return to Homs. He was arrested around mid-March, on a Saturday after the third Friday protest in his hometown. The way the mobilization developed in Homs, as in numerous other areas, was extremely spontaneous, "it all started with one single person shouting, calling for [popular] demands to be fulfilled," remembers Wassim, "no one joined him the first time, but the third time more people started to gather around him." The number of people taking to the streets grew proportionally to the violent response of the regime, as demonstrators started to be killed, even inside the hospitals where they were receiving treatments. Similar episodes are common even in the suburb of Duma, Damascus, where, according to activists, injured demonstrators are denied access to hospitals. In April, an impressive protest converged on the central Clock Square in Homs, where security forces opened fire at protesters, removed corpses and washed the blood away from the streets. The dynamics of the bloody escalation seem to have reached a point of no return.
According to local activists, Homs is now under military siege, with tanks deployed in several neighborhoods to prevent coordination committees from joining efforts. After having been detained and brutally tortured for eight days, Wassim adamantly affirmed that he would prefer to die rather than being arrested again, but he is still willing to contribute to the uprising.
"First of all, they blindfold you and, after a car ride, you find yourself in a tiny room, where you cannot even stretch or lie down, one meter long and half meter wide, three walls and a door," remembers Wassim, warning me that he might not be so clear, while piecing together such painful memories. After one hour, they took him to the interrogation room. The picture emerging from Wassim's account is that of a repressive apparatus merely interested in drawing out confessions and names of other activists, regardless of the truth of this information. Forced confessions serve the purpose of backing the unchanged propaganda motif employed against the uprising: qualifying the opposition as Islamist armed groups receiving financial support from abroad. "They told me they were aware of me receiving money from foreigners and that I was using this financial support to buy weapons and establishing an Islamic emirate," said Wassim about his imputations. It has to be noted that Wassim never served in the Syrian army and, during our conversation, he was not able to name the kind of weapons circulating in Homs.
Even the logic behind the arrests in Homs does not seem aimed at weakening the key circles of the opposition, but more at sowing fear indiscriminately. Wassim affirms that security forces arrest young people randomly from the streets, regardless of whether they participated or not in a demonstration, as if the orders received are about incarcerating a fixed amount of people each week. Even if they don't arrest the wanted people, other family members will endure detention in place of them. This doctrine of fear is regularly applied in other areas, like the suburb of Qadam in Damascus, where in one week residents saw around 300 people, not necessarily participating in demonstrations, disappearing in the white Opel cars of the Mukhabarat. Another activist from Idlib is currently on the run across Syria, after his father and brother have been arrested in place of him.
During the interrogation, it is even more important than confessions "to break you from the inside," maintains Wassim, who was tortured for approximately 18 hours on the whole and released without having admitted anything relevant. As a consequence of the electroshocks, Wassim suffered a form of impairment of hearing for the following two months. "During the whole interrogation I had one guy on my right side, letting me hear the rumor of an electroshock baton, which can hurl your body 3 meters away," recalls crying Wassim, "another guy was on my left side and he kept on beating me on the head…even if had confessed, they would have done this, to scare me." After the first round of interrogations, they took him to another room, where his naked body was sprinkled with cold water and electroshocked with a baton for nearly three hours." This routine of interrogation, humiliation and torture was organized in three phases, with the last electroshock session lasting almost 9 hours. After this, he was locked in another dark cell, still too small to allow him to lie on the floor. Two days later, he was brought to a collective cell, where he realized other people faced more violent tortures: "they have been beaten with sticks, so their bodies were entirely bruised, their skin ripped open and they were trying to stop the bleeding with shreds of clothes…some of them were 14…15 years old."
When Wassim was released, the security forces told his uncle that they had nothing against him, but Wassim remains convinced that the real reason was the need of space for new detainees. Even in Damascus, the amount of incarcerated people has reached consistent figures and some flashpoints, like the neighborhood of Qabun, were turned into ghost towns during the last weeks. Overcrowded jails could become a weak juncture for the regime in the long term, when it will be forced to make space for new detainees or tighten its grip on a dangerous, rapidly growing population of convicts.
At the same time, this indiscriminate approach adopted in persecuting the opposition could embolden activists, reassuring them on the regime's scarce knowledge of their mobilization skills. Especially for what concerns the cyber activists. What is usually considered as a weak feature of the dissident front, that is the lack of a unified coordination body, could be a winning card to set the secret services on the wrong track and benefit from the fact that members of a local committee generally ignore the names of the components of another committee. Nevertheless, to which extent informal and youth-generated mobilization will be able to make the difference on the ground is still a gamble with the future.