SYRIA: Anti-government activist describes life in Baniyas
“Perhaps one or two months,” he told Babylon & Beyond in an interview in neighboring Lebanon, where he recently arrived with the help of smugglers. “The international sanctions are hitting and the internal situation is very bad. In my area and in other places people are not paying their electricity and water bills anymore -- let alone taxes -- because they started to despise the regime. People are only buying food and necessities."
Ahmad, who did not want to give his last name, is from Baniyas, the Syrian coastal city that became a protest hub before coming under siege by the Syrian army and security forces in May. Large protests haven't been reported there since.
Ahmad says he participated in protests from the start and became involved in a Syrian activist group that documents the uprising against Assad. He often spoke to Arab and international media, including the Los Angeles Times, about the situation on the ground during the upheavals. It didn't take long before his name ended up on the Syrian authorities’ black list of activists.
"They started listening to my phone from the beginning. My family had to flee the city and I haven’t seen them in six months. I can’t talk to them. I have a friend in Damascus whom I spoke to once on the phone. They took him and held him for two months."
Before the army and security forces started cracking down on demonstrators months ago, Ahmad said, protesters did not call for the downfall of the regime. In the first week, protesters complained about sporadic and expensive electricity and wanted a corrupt local government official fired, he said. Then demonstrators called for prisoners to be freed.
The violence had not begun yet but security forces were trying to impose an economic siege as protests gained strength in Baniyas; the forces banned the entrance of various goods and necessities into the city, according to Ahmad's account. Then phones and electricity were cut late one night, prompting residents to fear that something bad was coming.
Ahmad recalls groups of people standing in the city streets that night, nervously talking to each other.
“We were worried but we didn’t know what was going to happen. We just knew there was something wrong.”
At dawn the next day, Ahmad spotted six SUVs with armed government enforcers, known as shabiha, entering the city. They raced through neighborhoods, spraying random gunfire at shops and buildings.
“They picked a very good time at 5 a.m., around the time of the morning prayer. There was heavy gunfire around the main street and people got injured.”
The following day, residents started putting up makeshift roadblocks of tires and wood planks. The mood among demonstrators, meanwhile, became darker, and protesters started chanting for the downfall of the Assad regime.
The security forces responded with violence, killing several people. Ahmad remembers being on the phone with media outlets in the middle of demonstrations when security forces started firing into the crowds. One man fell in front him, wounded in the stomach. Medical clinics that treated injured protesters came under siege from shabiha and security forces, according to the activist.
At night, he would write up reports about the latest developments on the ground in Baniyas. He sent them to the media and went on Skype with fellow activists in his network to recap and plan.
It was risky business, but Ahmad manage to elude capture by sleeping at a different house every night. But when the army finally stormed the city he had to leave.
The tanks have retreated from Baniyas but Ahmad says soldiers still remain in the city along with a large number of security forces. Protests remain small in number and security forces immediately move in on demonstrations when they erupt.
He estimates that around 300 people of the people that were picked up in security sweeps in the city remain detained in Baniyas.
Meanwhile, he sees the tide turning against the Assad regime, although he isn't sure exactly how the regime may crumble.
“Every day the regime gets weaker and more divided and the other side gains strength. The silent majority is slowly coming out. All countries have their own scenario. We will have to wait to see what Syria's will be like.”
--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Top photo: Protesters gather at a demonstration in Baniyas in May. Credit: Reuters
Lower photo: A burned car with the defiant slogan "Baniyas is the grave of the shabiha" scribbled over it. Credit: Associated Press