Syria’s Protesters: Whatever the Price, ‘We Have to Get Rid’ of Regime

BY Larisa Epatko  August 9, 2011 at 11:39 AM EDT

A new report offered by our partners at GlobalPost gets the perspective of three young revolutionaries determined to bring about change in Syria.

In the film, the anti-government protesters say they have endured beatings and other torture, which only strengthens their resolve.

“Every time I see something terrible my beliefs get stronger that whatever the price, we have to get rid of it,” said activist Diaa al-Dugmuch.

View the full report, produced by Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand:


Macleod and Flamand, who are English and Danish, respectively, spoke to us by telephone from Beirut (edited for length):

How did you find the revolutionaries you interviewed?

HUGH MACLEOD: The Syrian opposition had been trying to gather and have a conference in Turkey [in June]. In a classic way of dealing with Syria, you never know what’s going to happen until the very last minute. The political opposition is not very organized because there’s no political culture in Syria — it’s a 41-year-old dictatorship, and political parties are not allowed to do anything.

So we took a gamble — we didn’t know really if this was going to be a good place to meet young guys, or we’d just find some old guys in suits talking about concerns that don’t really represent the streets. We wanted to stick with the youth who are really driving this uprising. This is also a revolution against those old political opposition figures who did nothing for 20, 30 years. They made sacrifices, they went to prison, but nothing changed.

ANNASOFIE FLAMAND: One of the ways we found the young people was we started with contacts we already had in Syria mixed in with finding people using new media like Twitter and Facebook groups. We started meeting opposition figures in Lebanon but also in Syria. I went in through Damascus when it was still possible to go in under the guise of being a language student, because they wouldn’t let any journalists in. So we built up a good network of these opposition figures little by little at the end of March and beginning of April.

The three guys we met [in the video] had literally just left Syria the day before, so they come completely fresh with all the information, telling us exactly where they stand now, where their struggle stands at the moment. It was really interesting meeting people finally face-to-face. What we used to do is Skype, which is a relatively safe way of communicating, and over Facebook, Twitter and satellite telephone.

What made the biggest impression on you from your interviews?

ANNASOFIE FLAMAND: One of the things that impressed us the most was the extreme danger that these people are working under. When you are in Syria, you realize whether you’re a foreigner or opposition, you will be followed. It’s so ingrained into the society; there’s this heavy blanket of paranoia. And on top of that, the regime has decided to crack down hard on these people, so the bravery of these people and the chances they take in order to inform the rest of the world. We have heard of people crawling on their stomachs through woodlands in order to make it to satellite connections so they can call journalists like us — to avoid snipers or be informed on. Every time these people go to demonstrations, there’s a good chance they could be shot, they could be arrested and tortured. And about 2,000 people have disappeared.

HUGH MACLEOD: Also, we were very keen to get to the personal moments of when each guy broke through that barrier of fear and decided enough is enough. Not the rhetoric — because here in the Arab world, we’ve been here long enough to know, rhetoric goes far on TV but it means nothing. The problem is a lot of talking about change is only talk.

What was really great was these were like universal moments. For example, Diaa in the film basically heard a girl screaming and he just snapped. He had been protesting a little bit and dealing with the fear, but at this moment seeing the secret policeman beating up a girl — that for him was just too much. And he dragged the man off her, and he said the look in that guy’s eyes at the moment was like “what the hell is going on?” This secret policeman had never been attacked by a member of the public, it’s unheard of. These guys run the country.

Another man, Omar Maqdad, actually met his torturer by chance on the streets of Damascus.

ANNASOFIE FLAMAND: That was maybe six months after he had been held. He walked up to the man and said, “Do you remember me?” And the man said, “No I don’t remember you.” So Omar described who he was and asked the man if he wanted to go out for a cup of coffee, and said “I want to be your friend, I forgive you.” And he said the man was actually sweating profusely and felt distinctly uncomfortable and walked off. But it was one of those moments, quite symbolic really, and we hope with all our hearts that a next generation will be able to forgive and forget what has happened in the past and can move forward in a different way.

What do the people who were activists even before the Arab spring think about the protests gaining steam this year?

ANNASOFIE FLAMAND: All of these activists feel incredibly elated. They feel an energy they have never felt before. A few people have explained to us that it’s like you can suddenly start a real life. Before we weren’t living, now we are. With all the danger, the killings, the torture that have gone with this uprising, I think there’s a quite positive feeling among people and a hope for a better future.

HUGH MACLEOD: One of the really important things that’s happening in Syria now is that people are beginning to form their own society, where society hardly existed because you can’t have unions, you can’t have social groups or political organizations. And you don’t trust your neighbors, you keep your eye on them really. Now, one of the most cleansing aspects of this uprising is that people are working together to form a society. One of the reasons it’s going so slowly is because it’s not like Cairo, where things are more interconnected.

Why did you leave Syria, and how do you report about another country while actually not being allowed into it?

HUGH MACLEOD: I was banned in the end. Basically the regime does not want journalists there, but there are reformers in the regime. And for three years, someone held a hand over me to some degree — I was never exactly sure how it happened. But I did work for a local magazine, which was set up to report in English on Syria’s developments and problems. I had written dozens of other articles for other newspapers, like the San Francisco Chronicle. Your problems with the regime accumulate to a critical mass, and then they say no more visas. So I left January or February 2007, and I wasn’t able to go back for three years. They did let me go back in February of this year, which was an interesting time to be there.

As to how we gather reporting: From our time working there we have several established contacts, so we work with them. We have a Syrian journalist who works with us in Beirut, and we have our own contacts we contact through Skype. And we work with local grassroots organizations. We try and cross-reference all information twice or three times before we run any news. We have to be very thorough, because if we mess up that only serves the regime.

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