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Bold, exhilarating stands for freedom inside Syria

By Arwa Damon, CNN
updated 8:20 PM EST, Mon February 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As U.N. meets on Syria, activists appear more determined
  • CNN gets an inside look at the grass-roots movement
  • Damascus protests happen in quick bursts every night
  • Leaflets: "Hasn't the regime filled the land with enough bad things?"

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- Abu Marwan jumps into the back of the small white van. He and his friend, Abu Omar, are heading to a grass-roots demonstration in the Syrian capital to protest the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The tension is palpable inside the car: If caught, they will face beatings, torture and even possible death.

Abu Marwan was captured once last summer. He says he was repeatedly beaten and dragged away by government forces, blood pouring down his face. Another time, a friend died in his arms.

"Do you know what it means when your friends are hurting and you can't do anything?" he says.

Abu Omar says another friend was killed in custody, his corpse returned to the family home. "They send his body to his family, tortured, cut with knives," he says.

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Both men are driven by the same desire: to be treated with dignity and respect, to voice their opinions without reprisal, to speak for the thousands killed, detained and tortured since the uprisings began last March.

The van's engine revs. The vehicle creeps along the alleyways and winding streets of the central Damascus neighborhood of Kafarsouseh. The two constantly peer around to make sure government forces aren't following.

Eventually, they arrive at a safe house to pick up posters and leaflets. The slips of paper carry a message for those who have remained silent:

"Isn't it about time? Hasn't the regime filled the land with enough bad things?"

'Killing machine is still at work'

Far from the chaotic streets of Damascus, diplomats gather at the U.N. Security Council to debate the violence that has spread in recent weeks as government forces have cracked down.

"The reality on the ground bears witness that bloodshed has not stopped, that the killing machine is still at work, and that the violence is spreading," said Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, the prime minister of Qatar.

He accused the Syrian government of failing to cooperate with the international community and ignoring calls for calm.

The Security Council parsed words over a resolution to put more pressure on Syria, with Russia refusing to condemn the Syrian regime. Moscow has said the world body has no business interfering in a country's internal affairs or in pushing for regime change.

By week's end, the draft resolution was scuttled by Russia and China. "They chose to side with the Syrian regime and implicitly to leave the door open to further abuses," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

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Syria's envoy to the United Nations said the Arab League and the global community were distorting the facts on the ground. He vowed that his country would protect its citizens, and he rejected "international intervention."

"Homelands are built by their own citizens," Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said.

On the streets of Syria, every day brought more reports of an ever increasing death toll. One disturbing video surfaced on YouTube purportedly showing several members of a family killed. In the video, the mother's eyes appeared to be gouged out. At least four children died with their parents. Opposition groups say the family was killed by government forces in the flashpoint city of Homs.

Such brutality isn't uncommon, according to a newly released report from Human Rights Watch, which detailed detentions and torture brought by Syrian army and security officers. "Syrian security forces have killed, arrested and tortured children in their homes, their schools or on the streets," said Lois Whitman, children's rights director at Human Rights Watch.

In the city of Hama, activists poured red paint into a river, symbolizing the bloodshed from 30 years ago, when government forces killed at least 10,000. Some estimates from the 1982 crackdown have put the death toll much higher: up to 40,000.

Umm Mohammed was 20 years old at the time, a young mother of two. Her husband was detained as part of a mass roundup. Eight years later, she found out he had been executed. She never recovered his body, was never able to give him a proper burial.

"It's happening again, only all over Syria," she sobbed. "We've suffered, I swear to you, we've suffered. Isn't it enough?"

Rising from the shadows

Neither Abu Marwan nor Abu Omar expected to become activists. A year ago, before the uprising began, they were university students. Abu Marwan was in his first year of medical school. Abu Omar was studying IT.

Now, driving through the streets, Abu Omar points out walls where anti-government graffiti has been painted over. It's part of a nightly ritual. Protesters spray-paint walls with anti-government slogans; by day, government forces try to cover them up.

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Young men walk in groups of two and three down the darkened roads, trying to hug the shadows of the buildings. The silhouettes provide a glimpse inside the determination of the protesters -- the extremes they go through to go unnoticed before their flashmob-like demonstrations.

"They come very carefully," Abu Omar says. "And now they will go to the other streets and hide."

He explains how they have spotters set up at all entrances to the neighborhood. It's especially precarious for them, the government keen to quell any signs of dissent in the center of the capital.

"This is the hardest thing we do, every night," Abu Marwan says.

Soon, a signal is given. The street erupts into bustling activity. Young men seemingly come out of nowhere and pour into a small square in front of one of the neighborhood's mosques. A flimsy ladder is thrown up against the wall, and some protesters scramble up, carrying posters. They quickly hang the opposition flag: the old Syrian flag before the Baath party took over four decades ago.

Demonstrators hold cans of hairspray and air freshener in the air and light them on fire, letting out brief jets of light. A drum beats rhythmically, and the crowd chants for the downfall of the regime.

"Oh, how nice is freedom!" they shout.

The dozens here say that they feel abandoned by the international community, that the United Nations has stood by and done nothing to intervene as more than 5,000 Syrians have been killed.

Bloody winter in Homs

But like every night here, the protest is short-lived. Ten minutes after the jubilant chants began, the demonstrators begin scrambling. Word spreads like wildfire that security forces are closing in from all directions.

The opposition flag remains on the wall as they scatter -- a sign to the government that the citizens stood up to the government, even if only briefly.

Abu Omar's feet slap the pavement in an all-out sprint. Getting caught isn't an option. "You have to go faster! Be careful," he shouts.

They hop into their vehicle and peel away.

This is their nightly ritual -- small, exhilarating stands for freedom. The fear they once had is no longer a paralyzing novelty, but rather it's now imbedded in their psyche.

Abu Marwan elaborates on his detention over the summer. He says he was jailed for three weeks. "It was a big demonstration, and we wanted to stay in our place. We didn't want to run."

But then, the security forces arrived, carrying sticks and firing above their heads. "They attacked us and we freaked and ran," he says. "One of my friends fell, and I had to help him."

His friend managed to escape. Abu Marwan wasn't so lucky. He was repeatedly beaten and dragged away. "I couldn't breathe," he says. "They kept hitting me, more than 20 people, they still hitting me and I couldn't feel anything. I just fell, I was unconscious."

At first, he says, he was held in a cell with four others detained that day. Then, they were moved to another location, packed in with 60 others in a room about 12 feet by 9 feet. "Ten of us would be standing, and when they get tired, they sit down and we stand up."

"We kept worrying about our friends on the outside, are they OK? We didn't know what happened to them because we just got caught in the first moment," he says. "We wanted to get out, to move on."

With the help of three lawyers, he was set free. But the beatings and detention didn't scare him, they motivated him. He and the other activists, he says, will continue to take their message to the streets, "even if we get arrested two, three, four, five times."

If it's true what the Syrian envoy told the United Nations -- that "homelands are built by their own citizens" -- then residents seem emboldened to keep pushing.

CNN's Wayne Drash contributed to this report.

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