On a Monday in late February, I received a Facebook message from a Syrian activist notifying me that a demonstration was due to start in half an hour in a heavily guarded section of Damascus. The occasion was a funeral, and so the protest was likely to be large. “Two of the five martyrs are children, and funeral processions for children are always big,” the message explained.
I took a cab to the Kafr Sousa district, an area that is home to many government buildings, and walked for 20 minutes, until I came upon about 75 casually dressed men toting machine guns. These were the shabiha—the plain-clothes, pro-government militia who have taken the lead in suppressing the rebellion. Their presence suggested that I was headed in the right direction.
I followed a barely perceptible trickle of young people down a residential side street. Old men stood around nervously, as if waiting for something to happen. A boy of about ten came darting up the middle of the street, his face partly obscured by a hoodie. “Allahu Akbar,” he shouted as he ran. I fell in behind him and, after passing another line of heavily armed men, there it was: a nondescript mosque with several thousand ululating mourners huddled outside.
The body of a twelve-year-old boy was being held aloft on a wooden board—he had apparently been shot by the army during a previous protest. I could see no Western journalists or anyone from Syrian state television. Locals had clambered on the back of a disused truck and were shooting footage on iPads and digital recording devices. When I took out my phone to take a picture, however, a masked man approached and suggested that I put it away.
For a time, the shabiha looked like they might not let anyone leave. Eventually, however, the funeral procession began to move, with a group of teenagers at the front. A bearded man told me that this was common: Young people “have more energy than us,” he said, “so they take the lead.” I approached a nattily dressed young man in his mid-twenties wearing a beret and a cardigan, and introduced myself as a journalist. “Have you Coke and onions?” he replied. This response was not as nonsensical as it sounded: When the demonstrations are targeted with tear gas, protesters rub Coca-Cola into their eyes and use onions to take care of the acrid smell.
The young man, Mohammed, told me as we walked that the demonstrators were shouting to the child, “Your father said, ‘Hold your head up high,’” and to his parents, “We are all your son.” At funerals, he explained, mourners avoid political statements so as not to provoke the army or the shabiha. A single mention of Bashar Al Assad could provoke a hail of bullets. He warned me that, if anything happened, I shouldn’t run forward or backward but tear off down a side road. “You can’t get arrested,” he said. “You are going to be our voice.”
(…) This was my third trip to Syria. I first visited in October 2010 and again in November last year. This time, I was particularly eager to meet the young activists who are the heart of the movement against the Assad regime. Three out of five Syrians are under 25, and, beyond the lazy clichés about a new “Facebook generation,” there’s little understanding in the West of who they are and what they might want. And so I came back to Syria for ten days, not as an officially sanctioned journalist but as a civilian—living in ordinary Damascus hotels and meeting as many Syrian activists as I could.
(…)THE SYRIAN REGIME is winning every battle it picks with the armed opposition. Two days after my trip to Homs, the FSA in Baba Amr announced it would “strategically withdraw” from the neighborhood: It was running low on weapons, it said, and wanted to spare what remained of the civilian population. The army is now trying to clear Homs of what it calls “armed gangs,” just as it did in Douma, Kafr Batna, and Harasta. After that, it will likely turn its attention to other pockets of resistance farther afield. According to the United Nations, about 9,000 people have been killed so far, and, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, 230,000 have been displaced from their homes; 18,000 are thought to be detained in government prisons.
James Harkin is a London-based writer. His latest book is Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours the Mainstream.
The above article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine and was published in tnr.com on March 29th, 2012.