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For A Night, Experiencing A Syrian Activist's Fear
During a recent trip to Syria, I managed to sneak away from my minders one night and spend an evening with a man in the capital, Damascus, who's an IT engineer by day and an activist by night.
I was able to see up close that protesting in Syria is not just a matter of raising your fist. It's a matter of life and death.
Let's start this story with how I was able to meet the activist.
It was the quietist time of the day, just as everyone was breaking the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast. I walked away from my hotel and caught a taxi off the street. I stopped at a foreign embassy and stood on the sidewalk.
The activist was out there somewhere, to see if anyone had tailed me. A short and skinny young guy walked past and whispered, "Please follow me." I waited until he got down the block and then I started walking.
I'd been instructed to do all this by one of the protest leaders. I followed the activist through streets and alleys. We finally reached his car, in a lot behind a door.
He tells me that I can't use his voice on the radio, or use any details about where he works or lives. Activists have been arrested simply for talking to reporters on the phone.
He tells me about a 15-year-old protester who'd been killed by security forces. Later at his funeral, another man was shot. He's now dying in the hospital.
Protest After Nightly Prayers
We stop at the activist's house to grab something to eat before the final prayer of the day. During Ramadan, the moments after the extra nightly prayer have become a time of protest.
After tea, the activist changes into a white robe, and I put on a long black abaya, or robe, and headscarf. His mother and sisters say they like the way it looks.
The activist says his family doesn't know why I'm there or what we're doing. Or maybe they do know but don't want to admit this could be the last time they see their son.
Back in the car we see security forces on their way to the nightly prayer. We see at least six green buses packed with plainclothes men known as shabiha. These are the government-sponsored thugs who carry rifles, clubs and Tasers. They take their buses to mosques, then wait outside to keep people from gathering.
We pull over and wait for the prayer to finish. The activist gets out first and tells me to wait. Then he comes right back.
"Please hurry," he says. "They've started."
'One Day My Time Is Coming'
I hide my phone in my sleeve. It's doing all the recording. We see a group of maybe 30 protesters walking very fast down a dark and narrow alley.
We can hear them chanting. They're calling for the fall of the regime. We run to catch up.
Then we hear cars honking their horns. The activist says that's a warning sign the security forces are coming. The protesters surge back toward us.
Then there's a white flash and a loud bang. The activist calls me "mama" and grabs my arm. We're trying to look like we have nothing to do with the protest.
The activist says they could arrest us at any minute. We do our best to stay calm. We make it back to the car.
We realize the bang was just a stun grenade. At this protest, security forces haven't used live ammunition. Protesters get into their cars and speed away. The whole thing only lasted a few minutes.
Damascus seems like it's back to normal.
Later, after I had left the city, I talk to the activist on a secure line. I've asked him to check in with me so I know he's alright.
"Every day one of us is arrested and tortured," he says. "One day my time is coming."
"Until the world realizes what's happening in Syria, they will try and get us all."