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Inside Syria, Electricity and Internet Are Lifeblood for Activists

August 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Turkey's foreign minister met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on Monday to express his concern about the Syrian offensive, but Assad defied outside appeals to stop the deadly crackdown. GlobalPost's Annasofie Flamand and Hugh Macleod discuss the unrest with three young Syrian activists in Turkey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the uprising in Syria.

The Syrian army kept up its offensive today, launching raids on more towns across the country. Turkey’s foreign minister met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad today to express his concern and call for calm. Assad has defied outside appeals to stop the deadly crackdown on a five-month-old uprising.

We turn now to the voices of three young Syrian anti-government activists. They were interviewed in neighboring Turkey by the reporting team of Annasofie Flamand and Hugh Macleod.

Macleod narrated this story for our partner the international website GlobalPost.

And a warning to viewers: It contains disturbing images.

DIAA DUGMUCH, Syrian anti-government activist (through translator): It was the fuse that was lit because we have this common ground. The Arabic regimes are all the same.

They have the same ruler who considers himself God, the same injustice, the same inheritance of power, like in Syria. So those rulers consider themselves owners of the countries. The only thing we needed was this spark to be lit. The spark was in Tunisia and went through the countries to Syria. That spark made the shift that we should go to the streets.

HUGH MACLEOD: On March 18, 2011, the unthinkable happened: The Syrian people took to the streets by the hundreds to protest against the regime. It was an unprecedented challenge to President Bashar al-Assad and his family’s 41-year dictatorship over the country.

DIAA DUGMUCH (through translator): I chanted and I was happy, but at the same time, I was afraid because the security agents were gathering. And we were only around 100 people.

HUGH MACLEOD: Most of the first protesters were Damascus native Diaa Dugmuch, a 25-year-old who was studying law in Beirut when the Arab uprisings began. He came home to Damascus to join a wave of young people willing to risk their lives to openly confront the regime in one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states.

DIAA DUGMUCH (through translator): But there were many watching. But are they security? Are they with us, against us? But everyone looked like they were watching something beautiful passing by.

I felt it coming from my inside, like someone holding a guitar or an oud for the first time and has never played them before, and suddenly finds himself a musician. It came from the bottom of my heart. So I looked around and I saw that it was coming from the others the same way.

HUGH MACLEOD: Diaa, along with two other activists who stories follow, agreed to speak on camera about their experiences while they were safely out of Syria across the border in Turkey in June 2011.

Inspired by Diaa and his colleagues’ early acts of defiance, other young people began to organize themselves into mass protests against the regime. One of those was Omar Maquad, a 31-year-old citizen journalist from Daraa, a southern border city and the cradle of the uprising. He launched a magazine prior to the uprising, and his stories criticizing the regime led to a nearly two-year jail sentence.

OMAR MAQUAD, Syrian anti-government activist: So, all the nights, we prepared ourselves. We encouraged ourselves: Don’t worry. It’s OK. What they can do? They will just arrest us, no problem.

HUGH MACLEOD: With media banned from reporting in Syria, Omar, like many activists, decided he had to document events using a cell phone camera, uploading videos to YouTube, to be the eyes and ears of the world.

In a clip that became an icon of the military siege of Daraa, Omar filmed security forces marching through the streets in an almost apocalyptic scene.

OMAR MAQUAD: We have to film them when they arrest us to say that’s for the media. But, actually, they make a long story short as we say. They kill us. They didn’t arrest us. They let us down. That’s it.

HUGH MACLEOD: From the first days of the uprising, the regime used brutal violence to try and crush its young opponents.

MICHEL, Syrian anti-government activist (through translator): The girls with us tried to protect the boys because we didn’t think they would beat girls.

HUGH MACLEOD: Michel, a pseudonym for an activist in his 20s, is from a family with a long history of political activism. He helped organize street protests in the capital, Damascus.

MICHEL (through translator): But the security didn’t have a problem beating girls. So they did. A few of us were arrested because we were trying to protect the girls. I was dragged by my hair for 200 meters by two secret police officers. One pulled me by my hair. One pulled me by my arm. We got to the car and they beat me with batons. Six of them were standing around me. And the colonel in charge also beat me.

DIAA DUGMUCH (through translator): So I heard a girl screaming. She was screaming loudly so I ran towards the screams. Of course, they started beating me. They tried to get me to the ground, but I resisted. But someone hit me on my knee from behind. They stood in a circle and covered my head with my T-shirt.

I managed to see a circle of feet around me, and they started to kick me. All I could do was this to protect my face. They kept beating me, but I didn’t feel any pain. Maybe I had a lot of adrenaline.

HUGH MACLEOD: While the Arab uprisings provided the spark, the desire to change their country had long been growing in Syria’s young revolutionaries.

OMAR MAQUAD: I like to write. Just, I love to express my feelings on papers, how I feel, how I see my country. And all the time, I make a compare between Syria and European, some European countries, why, why we — OK, we have everything we need to be a modern country. I see bad things. Why these things bad? Why can’t we fix it?

DIAA DUGMUCH (through translator): I thought I was the first, so I started a page, a Facebook group. But when I searched, I found lots of groups already there. I was happy, so I started this group and started to talk to other youths. To my surprise, I realized that they are thinking just like me. They feel the same as I do.

MICHEL (through translator): In my opinion, I was still thinking that no sensible person would take such a risk. But, for me, this is it. This is the decision we made: to be or not to be.

OMAR MAQUAD: It was like a war, but, for us, we use our camera. And for them, they use their guns. And we need to — to film everything for media, because we are alone inside, no one to support us, no one to film what is happening exactly in Syria.

HUGH MACLEOD: Aware that the Internet is the main source of communication for Syria’s youth activists, the regime laid siege to several major protest cities, cutting electricity in an attempt to take the revolution offline.

OMAR MAQUAD: We got a problem with the batteries because our batteries are running out, and no electric to recharge your equipment. So, for phone calls, we create a new way. It’s actually simple way to recharge your phone. We used to — a glass of water with two batteries Duracell or something else. This already exists everywhere. We use it, keep the batteries in the water for one hour or 30 minutes. Then you put the USB adapters inside the water and start charge. That’s how we charge the mobiles.    

HUGH MACLEOD: Though adept at getting around the regime’s attempts to silence them, activists know that, if they are caught, the consequences are grave.

OMAR MAQUAD: “Who’s Omar Maquad?” they ask.  

I kept silent. He took the gun out and he wave it at my head: “Don’t move.”

HUGH MACLEOD: Omar’s love of writing had got him into trouble with the regime. He was arrested and sent to the infamous Tadmor prison in Palmyra in the deserts of eastern Syria, some 200 kilometers northeast of Damascus, for 22 months.

OMAR MAQUAD: I don’t know how to explain this for you exactly, but it’s terrible. It’s not just make you afraid. It’s terrible, because you are alone. You don’t have — you can’t defend yourself. Wild people control you. And it’s too easy they can kill you.  

I would ask myself all the time, I have to be strong a little bit. I don’t have to show them that I’m scared, because if they feel that you are scared, they control you.    

HUGH MACLEOD: The systematic torture of protesters in prisons by Assad’s security forces has been well-documented during the uprising. Human rights group described several brutal techniques, including pulling nails from fingers, electric shocks, and humiliating detainees by urinating on them.

DIAA DUGMUCH (through translator): After being tortured, people are more determined than before, because we have this belief. After all I saw, every time I see something hideous, my belief gets stronger, that whatever the price is, we need to get rid of this. I mean, there’s no way we can continue with this regime. It’s not a regime. It’s a gang.

HUGH MACLEOD: All three of these youth revolutionaries are still in touch with their friends on the ground in Syria and remain active on social networking sites, helping organize protests against the regime. Despite the threat of arrest and torture, they all hope to return to Syria to continue to push for an end to the dictatorship.

OMAR MAQUAD: Our guys there, they are working so hard on the ground. And I hope soon they — they will be happy. I am sure about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, the Syrian state-run news agency reported, President Assad said his government would be relentless in its pursuit of what he called — quote — “terrorist groups.”