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Activist documents violence at Syrian demonstrations

By Arwa Damon, CNN
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One woman's challenge to Syrian regime
  • Syria unrest began in March when teens were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti
  • Anti-government protests spread to Syrian cities including Hama, Homs and Damascus
  • Laila, a lawyer and human rights activist, is documenting violence against peaceful protesters
  • She has protected her real identity to ensure her personal safety

Damascus (CNN) -- She asks that we call her "Laila" but it is not her real name, as she has to protect her identity for her own safety.

A human rights activist and lawyer, Laila says she has been to at least two dozen anti-government demonstrations in and around Damascus and wanted to observe firsthand violations by the Syrian regime.

"The security forces jumped in front of the protesters and there was less than 10 meters between them and the security forces started shooting," she recalls of one protest.

At least five people next to her were shot and killed, despite that fact the demonstrations were peaceful, she says.

Syrian city at heart of protest
Syrian opposition seeks one voice

Asked how often she witnessed security forces firing on protesters, she replies, "all the time, every time."

But a top adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad maintains that the government is not attacking peaceful protesters and claims "armed gangs" are responsible for the violence.

The unrest in Syria began in March this year after teens were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Daraa.

As the clashes intensified, demonstrators changed their demands, from calls for freedom and an end to abuses by the security forces to calls for an end to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said security forces have intensified their campaign of mass arrests in cities that have had anti-government protests.

The cities include Hama, Homs, and suburbs around Damascus, the group said.

But Laila insists all of the protests she has seen have been peaceful.

The combination of internal economic stress and external political pressure I think will force everybody to finally look for a political way out of this.
--Analyst Rami Khoury
  • Syria
  • Bashar Assad

"How do these protests finish every time?" she asks rhetorically. "By the security forces and al-Shabiha (pro-regime gangs) attacking the protesters."

Laila says she also visits wounded demonstrators and catalogues their stories -- though she says she has to hide their identities as it would put their lives in danger.

She herself was detained once, for 48 hours, but released unharmed. She believes her legal knowledge kept her safe.

However, she says it's different for others.

"I see how they treat the prisoners there," she says. "They don't find them like human beings in front of them.

"They make the prisoners being naked and they beat them every step of the way. Like if they want to go to toilet they will beat them all the way. I saw how they force a prisoner to drink from toilet water."

But she remains relentless and undeterred in her mission to tell this story. She is forced to sneak around her own city, constantly looking over her shoulder, risking her life time and time again.

The protesters themselves seem similarly undeterred, posing an unprecedented challenge to the Syrian government.

For the first time in 50 years the old method of the military putting down or buying off opposing voices isn't working, according to Beirut-based political analyst Rami Khoury.

"So there is a kind of slight schizophrenic response which I think is a function of the regime not knowing how to deal with this mass political change," he says.

"They never faced anything like this before, they don't have the tools to deal with this kind of approach, and that's why you see these apparently contradictory political and military responses that don't seem to make any sense."

On the one hand, he says, the government has realized there has to be a political solution -- hence the national dialogue conference and talk of significant reforms.

But at the same time the regime continues down the military route, refusing to let up, targeting what it says are "armed gangs" fueled by foreign powers, intent on bringing down Assad's government.

"This nature of challenge has never been experienced by these regimes and we can see that they don't quite know what to do," Khoury says.

In Homs, activists fear the government is deliberately stoking sectarian tensions in its desperate bid to cling to power.

The feeling among many is that the demonstrations and resulting bloodshed will continue for months.

According to Khoury, this will happen until the Syrian economy starts to buckle.

"So the combination of internal economic stress and external political pressure I think will force everybody to finally look for a political way out of this," he says.

"It's hard to see a political reform process that will actually satisfy either side completely. It's very difficult, what you have is an existential challenge to the nature of this government and regime, done by people who are prepared to risk their lives."

People like Laila.

"You asked me why I am going out? Because it's our country ... and it's our responsibility to make it better."

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