DAMASCUS, Syria -- Last month, Um Hassan walked into her home for the first time in more than a year, but only to fetch some of her furniture and promptly leave. She was one of hundreds of displaced Syrians allowed by the government to enter the embattled district of Husseiniyeh, located just outside of Damascus. But nothing about Um Hassan’s trip bore the warmth of a journey back to where she came from.
“It was a complete desert. Not a sound. Nothing. Not a stray cat in the street. Not a pigeon in sight. Total silence and only rubble,” Um Hassan said, describing what had befallen the city where she and her family had lived for decades.
Two summers ago, violent clashes between armed rebels and government forces sent Um Hassan and her 12-year-old daughter fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Her four adult children soon followed, along with in-laws and grandchildren. In a story that is all too familiar, Um Hassan’s family has since been displaced a few more times as they escaped spreading violence from one Damascus suburb to the next. They finally settled into a modest rented apartment on the edge of the city.
Asked if she felt optimistic about the talks under way in Geneva between the Syrian government and members of the exiled Syrian opposition, she shrugged.
“All I know is that we’re very tired. We just want to go home,” she said.
Um Hassan’s sentiment captures a general mood in Damascus, where many people are too exhausted to care about the outcome of this week’s Geneva talks.
Some say the Syrian government led by Bashar Assad is exploiting this fatigue to impose its rule with an iron grip more brutal than the relatively mild totalitarianism it imposed prior to the uprising, which began almost three years ago. Photographs leaked this week of an estimated 11,000 Syrian corpses allegedly prove that the people were tortured to death while inside detention centers – something Assad’s opponents say gives a glimpse of the new Syria if his regime remains in power. Syria on Wednesday denied having tortured the detainees, calling the release of a 31-page report containing 55,000 images of emaciated and mutilated corpses an attempt to undermine peace efforts as diplomats gathered in Switzerland for talks.
Syrians continue to disappear, like the recent case of a friend of my family, a young woman who was swept up by State Security agents as she ran errands in downtown Damascus. Her family has heard nothing from the authorities regarding their daughter’s whereabouts, or the charges brought against her. Like tens of thousands of still missing people, she will be lucky if she comes home alive.
Outside the country’s notorious detention centers, fear and bullying also make up the general motif of everyday life.
In Damascus, people queue up for hours at checkpoints without daring to honk their horns or complain out loud. So-called Popular Committees, civilians recruited and armed by the authorities to “protect” local turf from “terrorists,” end up instead robbing and detaining people with impunity. No one can risk standing up to them.
Even exiting Syria can be a demoralizing exercise in power play for the average Syrian citizen.
During a recent border crossing, two immigration border guards abruptly refused to serve a line of people who had waited in their respective queues for more than half an hour.
“My shift is up. I’m done,” one of them announced. Then they both got up and left.
It took their supervisor 30 more minutes to find a replacement to serve us, a time during which no one in line dared utter a word of complaint, except perhaps for the whiny children and crying babies.
Only one replacement arrived, and he made clear that he had the power to serve, or not serve, anyone he chose. He threatened to send one woman, along with her two small and restless children, to the back of the line to wait another 40 minutes, just because she spoke up.
“Why don’t you alternate between the two queues? Take one person from here, then one from there. We’ve all been waiting a very long time,” she had said.
An authority figure with a bad attitude may not be unique to Syria, but the average Syrian has no recourse and hardly any protected rights. People stay quiet because they want to survive another day.
The guard kept threatening to send the woman back in the queue, while she begged him not to. He then stopped stamping our passports and started arguing with her, but not in a heated way, more like in the mocking tone of a man with sickness in his heart who relished every instant of tormenting a young and desperate woman.
No one dared lodge a complaint with the guard’s chain of command. Everyone seemed to bite their tongue and hope to get through the border crossing without incident.
Such is the general zeitgeist almost everywhere in government-controlled Syria today, causing many to lament that President Assad has already won against what started out as a legitimate, grassroots protest for reform.
One Damascene industrialist who never supported the uprising put it this way:
“I knew the uprising never had a chance, and I knew that once it failed, this regime will unleash all its hostilities on the rest of us. And this is what’s happening.”
Another Damascene lamented how al Qaeda hijacked the Syrian revolution, and in effect helped prop up Assad on the international arena as a leader battling terrorism. The Syrian government has always described rebels as “terrorists,” which turned into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy when al Qaeda-affiliated groups began to surface a year into the uprising. Conspiracy theorists insist there must be close ties between the Assad regime and the al Qaeda rebel groups that end up making the opposition rebels look bad.
In Geneva this week, the main narrative pushed by officials of the Syrian government is not about the human rights of their detainees, nor how to reconcile with the opposition, or even how to help the 7 million or so displaced Syrians return home. The Syrian government’s main point is its “fight against terrorism.”
This is why many people also speculate that Assad is preparing to run in this year’s elections in much the same way that he and his father before him have previously run. The so-called elections are actually a referendum, with only the incumbent’s name on the ballot.
“He used to claim victory with 99 percent approval,” said one Damascene, echoing a popular joke. “Maybe this time around, he’ll be a little embarrassed and just give himself, I don’t know, 80 percent approval?”
Um Hassan received this message loud and clear recently at the checkpoint into Husseiniyeh, when she asked the government guard when he thought people could move back home for good.
“Don’t even dream of it before the elections,” he told her.
She said she dreams of nothing at all these days.