SYRIA: In Damascus, uprising against regime brings fundamental changes
Growing up in the Syrian capital of Damascus, where pictures of the leader adorn the walls of every shop and cafe, Ahmed had "national education" lessons at school, in which he was taught about the patriotic deeds and words of the late President Hafez Assad.
"We always had to learn things by heart; you are not meant to make a mistake when quoting the president, it's like the Koran," said Ahmed, now in his 20s, who spoke on the condition that his real name not be used.
Growing up under the surveillance state created by Hafez and, later, his son, Bashar Assad, Ahmed said he never discussed politics in public and heard that those who did were arrested and subjected to torture by security forces. "We lived in constant fear; we know they are merciless," he said.
But Syria has changed drastically since the revolutions that toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and have shaken the rest of the Middle East spread to this regime more than two months ago.
Five weeks ago, Ahmed was one of thousands who rallied at a Friday protest in the Meedan area of the city center, calling for political freedom in defiance of busloads of security forces.
"We felt intoxicated that we were on the street," he said. "Just expressing yourself is a kind of freedom. It's saying things you have never said in your life before."
The resilience of the protest movement is not immediately apparent in Damascus. On Fridays, hundreds of plainclothes mukhabarat, or secret police, mill around public places. There are military checkpoints on the roads out of the city, and usually bustling markets and bus stations are empty. Suburbs such as Muadhimiya and Douma, where thousands have rallied in recent weeks, are now inaccessible, locked down by the army, with movements by residents severely restricted.
But there are protests, albeit small and swiftly dispersed, in the city itself. On Thursday nights before the protests, young Syrians look at dinky laptops in cafes with Wi-Fi, reading Facebook pages about protests and opposition movements. And Damascus residents, though conditioned by decades of heavy surveillance not to express views publicly, speak out against the regime.
The owner of one carpet shop said that he had seen four unarmed protesters shot and killed in Damascus. "The government doesn't care about the people, they just want obedience from them," he said.
"Syrians look at each other in a different way now," said one man in Damascus, a middle-class intellectual who asked not to be named. "Syria is no longer the safe place we knew, we don't go out at night. ... All discussions are about the current unrest, and if you have friends who disagree, the disagreements can be violent.
"People talk about politics in a way they didn't before," he added. "That's the main difference, it's all changed. ... I hope there will be less violence, and I think the size of the demonstrations will be smaller," he said. "But I think it will continue unless there is significant political change."
-- A special correspondent in Damascus
Video: A night protest against the regime of Bashar Assad in Saqba, a suburb of Damascus. Credit: YouTube