The knock on the door is soft, barely audible at first. Faten, in the kitchen clearing away the dishes, freezes at the sound. She listens carefully. Her husband, Ahmed, is in an armchair watching television. He turns off the volume and cocks his head to the side. “Shit,” he says. The knocking is harder now and more insistent. Loud thuds echo through the apartment. The front door is the only thing that separates them from the terror outside. “Shit,” Ahmed says again and rises from the armchair. “Who is it?” He dashes to the drawn curtains and holds his head close to the fabric to peep outside. He looks out the window to the street, over to the neighbour’s, then to the courtyard. Faten stands at the peep hole, visibly nervous and agitated. She hesitates a moment before looking out. Suddenly it’s quiet. “I don’t see anybody,” Faten whispers in a voice bordering on panic. She's not usually like this. Faten is the one who's always calm and composed in the family, who tries to laugh off danger with her dry sense of humor. Ahmed goes to her, looks briefly into her eyes, touches her shoulders and pens the door.
All morning in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, dozens of people have been taken from their apartments. Nobody knows exactly how many. Armed secret police are moving from door to door. Now and again, a volley of gunshots shatters the silence in the streets. Ahmed, who is in his mid-50s, steps out of his home straight-backed to conceal his fear. “They smell it,” he says. “They’re trained for that.” As Ahmed steps out, I, the visitor from abroad, flee to the back rooms of the apartment. Ahmed and Faten’s house is my hideout. The family elders have discussed and decided that they’ve decided to risk everything for me, their freedom and their lives so that this story can be written. “You must report!” Ahmed had said. “The world must know what’s happening in our city!”
The Syrian revolution is the most unexpected of all Arab uprisings this year. Everyone, even abroad, assumed that President Bashar al-Assad was immune to unrest given his tight network of some two dozen competing security agencies. For the past half year, Assad has used excessive violence against his opponents. Tanks have been firing on civilians, war ships on cities. But the brutality has so far achieved only the opposite of what Assad wanted – the protests are expanding, they’re spreading through the entire country and are drawing ever more people. Since the beginning of the unrest, the regime has sealed off its borders to the foreign media. It simply doesn’t want any witnesses. Officially, there isn’t a single independent correspondent in the country at the moment. Assad, a former eye doctor, is all too aware about the power of images. He knows that the international media will only report what they can show. If there are no images, then probably won’t be much reporting. So the world can only see an unfocused and blurry Syria as seen on photos taken by demonstrators in Damascus and Homs on their mobile phones. The photos have a faraway quality much like the images that NASA robots transmit from Mars to Earth. It’s as if Syria has fallen off the map.
Children become tank experts
I keep my writing pad on the family’s bookshelf. It’s camouflaged as a Bible to prevent it from being seized. I can feel my heart beating wildly, leaping right up into my throat. Ahmed walks around the house and comes in again. He’s unsure. “Maybe it was the boy next door?” he says to Faten. For a while, the two peer nervously through the white curtains again. Then Ahmed turns up the television volume while Faten returns to the kitchen. They cling to every bit of normality they still have left.
Homs, home to two million people, is a significant and ambitious economic hub in Syria. It has an oil refinery and is surrounded by industry. The city has benefited from Assad’s cautious opening of the economy in the last decade. But many things here have now lost their original purpose. Streets have become shooting ranges while schools have been converted into prisons. Tanks are stationed at several intersections. Children here can easily reel off their various models T-60,T-62, T-72. Now and again, they shell buildings and homes.