Ghosts in the mosques


Opposition to the Syrian regime runs deep, as women, children, and the elderly take part in the resistance. By Nir Rosen

The uprising in Syria, as in elsewhere in the Arab world, has relied mainly on peaceful demonstrations; although also like Egypt, Yemen and even Bahrain, there has been an underreported violent side to the opposition as well.

Unlike other countries, protesters have not succeeded in establishing any sit-ins in public squares. Early attempts to establish sit-ins, such as in Homs' Clock Square in April were violently dispersed by government security forces. The regime took to posting security forces by main squares to prevent any future sit-ins.

Lately since the beginning of the school year, some protests have rekindled on campuses after a brutal crackdown on university activity over the summer, but almost all demonstrations have emerged from mosques.

Mosques remain the only public spaces that have sometimes escaped the government's crackdown. There have even been cases of Christians, Alawites or secular Sunnis standing outside mosques waiting for prayers to finish so they could join demonstrations.

Filming these demonstrations to send to the internet and satellite news networks has been a key tool of the opposition.

Sometimes they are left unmolested long enough to demonstrate freely for an hour or more. Other times they use guerrilla tactics to avoid security forces, conducting so-called "flying demonstrations", which occur at a pre-arranged location and are held ever-so-briefly – just long enough to film, so it can go up on the internet and be passed on to news networks.

One such flying demonstration took place on a Thursday night in early July, and residents of the wealthy Mazzeh neighbourhood in Damascus were surprised to hear opposition activists staging a demonstration, chanting "The people want the downfall of the regime!"

The activists had hoped their demonstration would encourage the locals to join in. The locals came out, and instead of joining the demonstration, attacked the participants with sticks and cudgels. Even security guards and building workers joined in the melee.

Then, after midnight, hundreds of people took part in a pro-regime demonstration in the same street – not quite what the opposition activists originally had in mind.

They shouted, "Arur you prostitute, Maher will step on your head!" They were referring to firebrand opposition cleric Sheikh Adnan al Arur – who lives in Saudi Arabia – and to Bashar al Assad's brother Maher, also the military commander.

Unlike opposition demonstrations, this one was not interrupted by security forces. The opposition activists made a critical error: Many people in Mazzeh were, in fact, regime supporters.

Freedom's lot

On the night of July 19, I took a taxi towards the Damascus neighbourhood of Qabun, the opposition stronghold.

The driver was nervous. "There are problems there every night," he said.

Loitering just outside the neighbourhood were soldiers and riot control police. Inside, Qabun's street lights were turned off and there were no security personnel. The walls were full of graffiti that had been crossed out. We nearly drove straight into a demonstration.

Men on motorcycles blocked the road to prevent cars from entering in the direction of the demonstration. Others stood as lookouts. They shooed the driver away. He dropped us off and left in a hurry, refusing to take passengers who approached him, afraid the demonstrators would vandalise his car should he linger.

All the shops were closed that night – a lesson learned after a restaurant and pharmacy were destroyed after they remained open during a previous protest.

The streets were bereft of people except for the hundreds of men marching through Qabun's main road at 10 PM. They had started at the Abu Bakr al Sadeeq mosque, though there were few overt signs of religious devotion. Not many of the demonstrators were bearded or wore dishdashas (traditional robes).

I approached one young man standing guard and introduced myself so that I would not arouse suspicion as an outsider – an 18 year-old engineering student called Amir. We walked with the demonstrators to an empty lot next to a mosque and a pharmacy. A man slowly drove a three wheeled motorcycle rigged with loudspeakers, blasting chants such as "the people want the collapse of the regime", "down with the Baath", and "Assad is a germ in Syria" (responding to the president comparing pro-democracy demonstrators to germs). Yet there were also many takbirs – calling "God is great!" – which is one of the more popular slogans in the demonstrations.

Amir called the empty lot "Freedom Square", like the more famous one in Cairo. He told me that for the past two months, they had been demonstrating like this every night after the evening prayers. I asked who organised it, and although it was popular, he said that it did not have any organiser. Hundreds filled the square, while a cluster of about twenty women in full black burqas – entirely covering their faces – stood a safe distance behind.

Different men took turns with the microphone, leading the crowd in chants or giving speeches. "I want to speak to the police," one man said. "Shame on you … we're not terrorists, we are Syrians. There is no leader for this demonstration – it's peaceful and popular. We salute anyone who defects from any military unit and joins us."

Another man took the microphone. "We are not against women coming," he said. "We want a separate

demonstration for women because, in this country, women and men started mixing and this is a shame for us."

An angry argument ensued, and the microphone was taken away as men shouted at one another. The demonstration then descended into bedlam. Most of the men were against any kind of demonstration for women at all.

"We complete our men, we want to come out just like our men," two women shouted. Tempers flared between the sexes.

As men left in still-bickering groups, some stayed to clean the bottles and trash left behind. Others marched back to the mosque in Freedom Square, cursing the soul, quite literally, of Bashar al Assad's father – "God damn your soul, Hafez!"

Fridays in Homs

Three days later, I attended Friday prayers in the central city of Homs, at the Khalid bin al Walid mosque – named after an important military commander during the early days of Islam.

But today was not Friday. Today was ahfad Khalid – the grandsons of Khalid. The opposition gave every Friday a new name, and this time it was a reference to Homs and this mosque.

The sermon was tame, mostly avoiding politics and sticking to religion. The elderly imam condemned sectarianism and called it a Jewish plot. He asked the youth not to shout until they left the mosque. But the moment prayers were complete – whilst men were still kneeling and shaking the hands of those on either side to wish them peace and God's blessings – the young men erupted in angry shouts of "God is great!" They ran out into the bright sun, past the courtyard and down the steps to the street to begin protesting.

They chanted "Death over humiliation!" and "Peaceful, peaceful, Muslim and Christian, Sunni and Shia!" To the tune of "Happy Birthday", they sang "Damn your soul, Hafez!"

Groups from different mosques fused. One group carried a huge Syrian flag that covered hundreds of demonstrators.

"No country is standing with us," a local businessman I was marching with told me. "They're going to kill a lot, until the regime falls."

Across Cairo Street, in the Bayada neighbourhood, was another protest, but security forces prevented the two demonstrations from merging.

But this demonstration continued to grow as it flowed through the streets of Khaldiyeh. Streets were blocked off by rocks, cinderblocks and sandbags. The demonstration halted in Khaldiyeh's main square, by al Ilu Garden. Protesters shouted their salutations to Sheikh Adnan al Arur.

A woman, clad completely in black and wearing a niqab – covering all but her eyes – stood up on a small platform. As she took the loudspeaker, the crowd of a few thousand strong went wild and shouted "God is great!" repeatedly, and then "With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, oh martyr!" The woman, who was related to a recent martyr, shouted back to them, above the din.

The protesters, well aware of the public relations battle being fought, stressed that they were not armed. They explained that some men had covered their faces with scarves just to avoid being identified by security operatives. Desperately they told me about the recent martyrs. The night before, 12 year-old Ahmad Arrifai was killed, as was 22 year-old Hiba al Arwani. The day before that, 30 year-old Hossam Juria and 16 year-old Rabia Juria had been shot to death. A 64 year-old woman, Dalal Kahil, had been killed. Muhammad Nuri Kahil and his cousin Muhamad Bassam Kahil were also killed.

'We (don't) love you'

Four days later and still in Homs, I visited the Omar ibn al Khatab mosque. I had heard its sheikh was an opposition supporter.

Women and children were camped out in cars outside the mosque, waiting for the final prayer of the day to finish.

As soon as it concluded, around 200 men emerged, shouting the usual refrains: "Takbir! God is great!", "Damn your soul, Hafez!" and "The people want the downfall of the regime!" Then they sang their support for other neighbourhoods. "Deaths at Bab Assiba won't stop us, Hamra will continue unto death!"

Undeterred, they continued: "We are the generation of freedom, we want to remove the Baath!" and "We are the nation of Muhammad!"

"You are dogs and we are lions!" they jeered. And then they mocked a pro-regime song, "We love you (Bashar)", by slightly altering the lyrics: "We don't love you!"

It was a very young, energetic crowd, and a few of the men were wearing masks. They jumped up and down, chanting and singing as if they were attending a football match. They stood in a big circle and held up a giant Syrian flag. A few dozen people stood around watching, comprised mostly of the older crowd. One woman wearing a headscarf marched into the crowd and disapprovingly dragged her chubby son away, who looked no older than 12.

A few cars honked impatiently as some protesters blocked traffic for a few minutes. A masked youth discreetly lit a firecracker between two cars. "The army is coming!" someone shouted. The firecracker exploded with a loud bang and everybody took flight.

Later that night, back in the hotel, calls of "God is great" wailing in the nearby neighbourhood crept through my window, with the unmistakable cadence of gun shots in the distance. Going out to explore, I heard more chanting and drums a ways off.

After almost an hour of walking around in the dark, I found them in an unlit street by a roundabout, beneath apartment buildings and near a mosque. They banged on drums and sang "Upright, I march" – a famous revolutionary song by Marcel Khalifa – and other classical Arab songs.

At one in the morning, the demonstration came to an end.

The counter-revolution will be televised

On July 28, Syrian television broadcast a massive pro-regime demonstration in Aleppo. Tens of thousands of people took part. They were shown carrying numerous pictures of Bashar.

There were a few Hezbollah flags here and there, and some interspersed pictures of Mary and Jesus Christ. One man held a Quran up in the air. Another carried a sign that said, "Arur you homosexual" (the regime had tried to delegitimise Sheikh Adnan al Arur by saying that when he was younger, he was dismissed from the army for engaging in homosexual sex).

At the demonstration, military men staged a show by rappelling down a tall building in the Square. An angry older woman in jeans with bleached hair and a face marked by cosmetic surgery stood on a stage and angrily shouted at the crowd in praise of Syria, urging them to be nationalistic, even leading the crowd in chanting oaths of allegiance to Syria en masse. She praised the army and celebrated its martyrs.

It was an expensive production, with powerful beams of light shining into the sky. It ended with fireworks, while different pop-singers wearing military clothing sang patriotic music and songs for the army.

At a simultaneous demonstration held in Quneitra, state television broadcast people carrying a massive Syrian flag. A demonstration in majority-Alawite Tartus on the coast was also shown.

"With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you oh Bashar!" they shouted.

"The people want Bashar forever!"

"God, Syria, Bashar and nothing else!"

They carried pictures of Bashar, and some of his father, calling out for "Abu Hafez" (Bashar's son is also named Hafez – "father of Hafez").

Next Friday

The next day, I took a taxi to the Bab Omar neighbourhood of Homs for Friday prayers.

The taxi passed dozens of security men, clad in loose green uniforms and sneakers, waiting under the comforting shade of some trees. They had clubs, shotguns, rifles, riot gear and shields. They were positioned between the Omar mosque of Hamra and the Fardos mosque of Inshaat in case they were ordered to disperse the protests.

I met a local contact at the Abdallah bin Zubeir mosque. Its sheikh, Abdallah Horani, looked quite young and was beardless. The mosque was densely packed, with many people lining up on mats outside on the street since there was no room inside.

Inside, prayer goers were pressed tightly against each other. There were many young boys in the crowd, along with some Bedouins in traditional garb. There must have been a thousand people crammed indoors. An array of fans and air conditioners battled the heat inside the mosque with futility; the fans shook as they squeaked and chirped like birds.

Sheikh Abdallah's sermon was angry, and typical of one that takes place just before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins. He urged people to respect it and its meaning, and warned them not to watch the special Ramadan television programmes that were very popular in the Arab world. He prayed that god would make them successful and grant them victory over oppression.

At the end of the normal Friday prayer, he added an additional, special one for the martyrs of the uprising. Immediately there were calls of "God is great!" and thus began the protest, marching towards Jurt Arraees.

On Suez Street we were met by more demonstrators from the Abdul Qadir Jilani mosque. That mosque's sheikh had been arrested earlier in the uprising for fifteen days – he was accused of turning his mosque into a field hospital for the opposition. The demonstrators from the Jilani mosque carried a giant flag from pre-Baathist Syria. When they met with our group, they shot confetti into the air.

The residents of the neighbourhood emerged to support the demonstrators. Old women with traditional tattoos on their faces grinned. They stood on corners, providing their water hoses for people to drink from, and sprayed the cold water into the air to cool us all under the bright sun beating down on us.

Women on the side and on balconies threw rice down at us. One woman splashed cups of water at people. Her husband grabbed the entire bucket of water and dumped it on the head and body of a friend he saw in the demonstration. The husband laughed and jumped back as his angry friend barked at him. Women and children looked down and smiled or sang along from balconies above the demonstrators.

It was a carnival-like atmosphere. More tunes were busted out in song:

"Damn you Hafez for producing this donkey!"

"We don't love you!"

"We won't bow to anyone but God!"

"Not forever, down with Assad!" (In response to the "Assad forever" slogan of regime supporters)

"The people want the downfall of the regime!"

They carried signs with the day's slogan: "Your silence is killing us". Other signs condemned sectarianism (although, in my opinion, whenever demonstrators condemn sectarianism in an all-Sunni demonstration, it is probably already too late, as I had witnessed in Iraq).

One man had an immense drum which he beat along with the songs and chants, whilst others clapped. The singers who led the demonstration sat on their friends' shoulders.

We walked all the way to the beginning of Jurt Arraees. This was the intersection where armoured personnel carriers had previously shot at protesters, so the elders beseeched the youth to turn back. After a rumour that the army was approaching led to a few hundred people departing, the remaining two thousand chanted, "Why are you afraid? God is with us!"

Those remaining continued their festive incantations: "Down with the regime and the Baath party!" "Bashar, Arur is better than your mother!" "He who doesn't give rights to the people is a germ! He who pretends to be a rejectionist and resistance is a germ!" (a reference to the president implying the opposition was a foreign conspiracy, which he compared to germs) "Hafez sold the Golan!" "Syria is for us and not for the Assad family!" "Damn your soul, Abu Hafez" "The Syrian media lies!" "Death, but no humiliation!"

They improvised humorous lyrics, always going back to the chorus "Come on, Bashar, leave!" They squatted and quietly chanted "The people want the downfall of the regime" over and over again in a murmur and then in unison they jumped up and angrily shouted it.

And then an effigy of a pig with Bashar's face on it was held up.

Carbonated soda vs. tear gas

On the first day of Ramadan, August 1, my friend Suheib picked me up and we drove to the poorer districts on the edges of Damascus, looking for trouble.

Because of heightened security, it was often difficult to locate any protests. We passed Zamalka and a picture of Bashar that had been torn down, and entered Arbeen. There was tense electricity in the air.

As youth buzzed back and forth chaotically on motorcycles, men stood around on street corners and by walls, seemingly waiting. I knew they were not only waiting for the protests, but keeping a look-out for security. Suheib saw that I recognised it too.

"There are unnatural movements," he said. He stopped and asked people for directions, knowing they would tell him to avoid certain streets if a protest was planned there.

Around 10 PM, shopkeepers hastily pulled down the shutters of their shops in anxious anticipation.

We walked to the main roundabout, overshadowed by a construction site, in the dark of night – the street lamps were turned off.

Hundreds of men marched towards us from Arbeen's Great Mosque, near the vegetable market. They stopped at the construction site and smashed cinderblocks on the ground to get smaller chunks to throw. Other men began erecting roadblocks made of cinder blocks, signs, garbage dumpsters, overturned tables.

"Come on guys, get rocks!" shouted older men.

Unlike other demonstrations I had been to, these were not the singing type, and the crowds appeared leaderless. They chanted for Arbeen. They chanted the usual curses at the regime. "God is great!" they chanted, "We wont bow to anybody but God!"

They marched in the direction of the security forces so they could unleash their impromptu projectiles. Teargas canisters were fired back.

"Why are you afraid God is with us!" they shouted when some men started to retreat, regaining their courage and rushing back.

After hearing gunshots, I – along with some others – retreated back and ducked for cover. A group of men

raced around the corner, carrying a young man with a bullet wound in his abdomen and a growing circle of blood.

They put him on the back of a pickup truck and urged him to say the shahada, in case he should die. "There is no god but God," he gasped as the pickup sped off, "and Muhammad is his prophet."

Waves of men ran back to avoid the tear gas or gunfire. They coughed, spit, and choked.

"Guys, Cola!" somebody shouted, pouring a local version of 7-Up on their faces to remedy the effects of the tear gas. They collected themselves and set forth on another sally, only to be met once again by tear gas and gun shots.

A young man sporting a pony tail and trendy clothes carried an expensive looking camera, filming the unfolding events – even asking others where he could go to find a better angle.

After some time, we left Arbeen and, luckily, stumbled upon another demonstration taking place in Zamalka. On the drive home, I saw two security vehicles with armed civilians and uniformed men parked on the overpass above the Hassan mosque in the Midan district.

Bullets in the dark

Back in Homs the next night, I walked from my hotel in the Inshaat district to the nearby Hamra area and its Omar ibn al Khattab mosque. Lights in the neighbourhood had been turned off, and its empty streets were eerily dark. I passed a biker cop monitoring the area.

Shortly before 10 PM, around a hundred youngsters had gathered on the main street, anticipating another demonstration. They piled bricks at the entrance to the road to block it off, and elsewhere they smashed bricks or cinderblocks on the ground to create smaller projectiles to throw – a popular (and convenient) tactic.

One young man in a tank top and a bandana carried a tire and a brick over to a corner and tossed them ceremoniously as if claiming his territory.

It was a wealthy area, with expensive shops, restaurants and even a fitness club. Normally, all would have been open until late during Ramadan. In stark contrast to what would normally be a festive occasion, pictures of two martyrs from the previous day's demonstration were hung up on the neighbourhood's walls.

Boys gathered to look at the pictures and discuss them. "Where did he eat it?" one boy asked another, meaning where in his body was he shot. I saw two youths equipped with slingshots.

The mosque was tightly packed with men and youth praying Tarawih, the special night time prayer of Ramadan. Its courtyard was also full of hundreds of men. Outside the mosque, over fifty youth waited for prayers to end.

After the 12th ruqu'a – or kneeling cycle – of the prayer, Sheikh Mahmud al Dalati paused and asked the women to leave the mosque for their own safety in anticipation of a clash that night. He also urged people not to confront security forces.

After the prayer, the Sheikh did his dua' – adding slightly political prayers to God, praying for martyrs, for victory, for the release of prisoners. After each dua', the men, whose palms were raised, called out to God. Even the youth outside the mosque, who had not been praying, stood with their palms up and called out "oh God!" After the last one was said, waves of men poured out of the mosque shouting, "To paradise we're going, millions of martyrs!"

They shouted that with their blood and their souls, they would sacrifice for the city of Hama, for the city of Deir Ezzor, for martyrs. The tire was set on fire.

I squeezed to the front of the crowd as the tire that was previously tossed with such pageantry was set ablaze, but could still not make out what was happening in the dark. Some youths were throwing bricks and chunks of cinderblocks. Tear gas was shot at us, and the sound of rifle shots cracked and echoed against the buildings, but in the darkness, I could not see the source.

The crowd fled, then regrouped and regained courage, shouting "why are you afraid, God is with us!" I made my way back towards the front and heavier shooting started. And then heavier gunfire commenced. A wave of fear carried us away. Shots got closer and closer behind us as we sprinted away looking for places to hide.

I was unfamiliar with the neighbourhood and panicked as I found every door closed. In my flight, I slid over a car while a more agile youth simply leapt over it, and I continued sprinting in a crouch in the darkness, feeling pain everywhere from the exertion, overcome with terror.

Finally though I heard a voice calling, "Come on boys! Come in!" and found an open gate to an apartment building, and an older man beckoning for us to enter. With about fifteen others, I collapsed on the staircase after climbing up one or two flights, gasping for air, shaking from exhaustion and fear.

Bullets in the dark – part 2

It was 10:40 PM. Older people from the upper middle class apartments came out and urged us to go up higher in the staircase, or to come into their apartments. Residents seemed well-dressed, the building was modern and clean.

Syrian regime propaganda described demonstrators as Islamic extremists, outside infiltrators, mercenaries, drug addicts, poor criminals. But here were the educated and affluent residents of Homs united in opposition.

Whispering, they offered us water, cigarettes, and a platter of tea with a kettle and glasses. Old women came out of their apartments to bless us.

Then we heard shooting outside. The residents urged us to be silent.

"Yesterday they were shooting inside buildings," somebody warned. A middle aged man and his teenage son were also on the staircase. They were panicking, making phone calls and crying. The man's other son had called his father just as he was getting arrested. Others tried to calm them and reassure them, or beg them to be silent so the security men outside the building would not hear them.

I guiltily resented the father for crying so loudly, worrying that we would get killed because of him, as long bursts of automatic weapon fire got closer.

"If anybody wants anything, let us know," an older man said.

"Guys, don't go out, there's a sniper in the playground," another man warned.

I had no intention of going out. I didn't even know where I was. One resident peered out his window and said there were strange people on the streets. The residents of the apartment building very quickly adopted the youths as their own.

"Please don't go out," begged one middle aged resident, Abdallah. "Please come into our apartment. Does anyone want to use the phone to call their family?"

After a brief respite, the shooting outside resumed, then abated again.

"There's 200 men in the mosque who can't get out!" one of the youths on his mobile phone announced.

Less than half an hour later, we heard long bursts from automatic weapons.

Two of the youths on the steps were from across town in Bab Assiba, a poor opposition stronghold. They had left their bicycle by the mosque. When it seemed safe, a man offered to drive some of them home, but he was not going in my direction.

Abdallah allowed me to use his family's land line to check on my friend Khaled, to see if he was okay, and to tell him I was safe. I got through to him but he told me his 20 year-old son was missing.

Abdallah invited me to sit in his affluent living room, where I confessed that I was an American journalist. Abdallah had lived and studied in the United States and was excited by his unexpected guest. His mother had a perfunctory lace white scarf on her hair and wore an embroidered white and brown gown. She fingered orange worry beads. Pictures of family weddings were on bookshelves. They appeared secular, the brides not wearing veils and dressed in western fashion. Abdallah's brother and his family lived in the apartment above. Abdallah lived in Inshaat with his wife and children but he came to Hamra so he could take his father to the Omar mosque every night. Their Filipino maid served us juice and coffee.

"Every day in Ramadan is like a Friday, so they want to scare people," he told me, explaining why security had cracked down on the Ramadan demonstrations.

He drove me back to my hotel when it was finally quiet outside. Armed people from the poor neighbourhood of Bab Omar had come to defend Inshaat from the security forces, he told me. I said I was impressed by the solidarity the older people had shown with the youth.

"They are my people," he said, "This is my country."





Part 2


Syria's symphony of scorn


Criticism of the Assad regime spreads wider, as families grieve for protesters who have been killed in the crackdown.


On August 3, I visited the old Waer neighbourhood on the western side of the Syrian city of Homs. Most of its residents were originally Bedouin from the Egeidat tribe. Although its lower class apartment blocks certainly looked urban, the people maintained many of their older traditions and could often be found sitting on carpets on the street outside their homes at night, while children roamed freely about.


The Rawda mosque was the main place of worship for old Waer. "The West thinks we are Islamists because we come out of mosques," a friend there told me, "but it's the only place people can gather."


At 9:40pm children ran down the streets, chanting anti-regime slogans. More than one thousand people gathered on the road in front of the fire department by the mosque that night. The fire department was covered in anti-regime graffiti.


About fifty women stood on the fringes of the demonstration. Most had only their hair covered with a hijab - unlike the more conservatively dressed women I had seen elsewhere - and they all sang and clapped with the rest of the crowd.


"Bedouin women are not like other women," my friend told me. "We don't make them wear the niqab."


Many older men stood by watching. Men took turns leading the crowd on microphones, sitting on shoulders to stand above the rest. The people cheered when they heard clever lines.


"Listen, listen, oh sniper, here is the neck and here is the head!" they taunted, assuming there were hidden regime gunmen in the buildings.

To the leader of Hezbollah - who voiced his support for the Syrian regime - they called out: "Oh Nasrallah, you are not one of us, take your dogs and leave us!"


"Ignite, Aleppo, ignite!" they chanted, encouraging the people of Aleppo to rise up.


"Rise, Assi River, rise. We want to remove him before Eid, every day we mourn a martyr," they cried out, using the Assi River as a symbol of the struggle. "Syria wants freedom!"


 "The people want the trial of the president"; "Bastard sold the Golan"; "Do you want Bashar? No by God"; "Hama we are with you till death! Der Ezor we are with you till death! Abu Kamal we are with you till death!"; "Bashar you thug, you want to ban the tarawih prayer, and the rights of Muslims and Christians! You have to go Bashar"; "Not forever! These are your last days, Bashar al Assad!"; "Birds, birds, birds, bye bye Bashar, have a good night" [this one is, granted, nonsensical - but sounds funny and rhymes well in Arabic]; "Listen, listen, oh Hassun [the pro-regime Mufti of Syria], take off the turban and put on horns!"; "How beautiful is freedom!"; "We want to throw Bashar in the nearest sewage pit! Syria wants freedom!"; "Damn your soul, Nasrallah"; "Thank you, oh Arur!" [people cheered when they heard the name of Saudi-based opposition cleric Sheikh Adnan al Arur];  "Damn you Maher - the roach! [Bashar al Assad's brother]"; "Bashar, you are the night and we are the day"; "Peaceful!" And in one song, the protesters went as far as to make fun of the president's lisp.


After the choir of scorn abated, a special guest was introduced.


"We have somebody from Hama here!" they announced. A young man from Hama took the loudspeaker and told the crowd of the brutality they were enduring and how six mosques were destroyed. Then he led the crowd in songs.


There were three separate demonstrations in Waer that night. At 11pm, word came of wounded demonstrators and martyrs elsewhere in the city. Our demonstration broke up in anticipation of the ambulances which would be passing on the same road we were on.


Becoming a statistic

The next day, Abu Omar, a friend of mine, smuggled me into a town named Rastan, just north of Homs. By the time we reached it, I had counted more than fifty tanks and armoured personnel carriers.


The residents made this town famous for destroying a giant statue of the late president Hafez al Assad, Bashar's father.


As of my visit, however, they had lost 85 people to the security forces, with thousands more imprisoned, Abu Omar told me. I asked how the most recent ones had died.


"You ask a lot about the first person," he said. "You ask less for the second and third, and then you just say 'okay'."


Thousands of people demonstrated on April 24, and 21 of them were killed. They ended up attacking the nearby military security headquarters. Rastan would become the centre of the armed opposition in Homs.


That night, after the tarawih prayers, as many as three thousand people gathered on Bareed Square, next to the Abu Amru mosque, for the demonstration. As security forces were not entering Rastan, it was once again a carnival-like atmosphere. Immense speakers were set up. Lights were hung above the protesters. On a nearby roof, activists were broadcasting the demonstration live on the internet. They sang along to trumpets and drums. There were many older men as well as children. Some women were clustered in the back.


The parable of Moses

On Friday, August 5, I went to the Omar ibn al Khatab mosque in Homs' upscale Hamra district. Its sheikh, Mahmud al Dalati, was known to be a strong supporter of the opposition. In his sermon, he called upon God to defeat and destroy "our enemies" - an indirect reference to the regime.


He told the story of the prophet Moses, who spoke to his people when they feared the pharaoh was overtaking them. "Kala", he said, which is a stronger rejection than the standard "no" in Arabic. Moses said "Kala," the sheikh explained, "God is with us, it is out of the question, [Pharaoh] will not overtake us."


The sheikh then praised the youth of the uprising. "Our youth are braver than any other people!" he said. The darkest time is just before the dawn, he explained. "But dawn is coming very soon."


He then spoke of the military attack on the restive city on Hama. "They are killing our people without discrimination, women and children," he said, going into detail about the regime's alleged crimes. Many men in the audience started crying.


In the dua calls to God, a man named Khaled stood up with others and shouted "oh God!" louder than the others. He looked around and waved arms so others would stand up and shout too.


As the prayer ended, Khaled was among the first to lead the chants. "Oh Bashar you Nimrod, we are Arabs not Jews!" he shouted, "Oh Bashar, you collaborator, go strike Israel! Oh Maher you coward, go liberate the Golan!" The demonstration continued down the street.


And not so far away, in Gardenia Square, there were three buses full of state security, awaiting orders.


That night though I had planned on going to the demonstration in Khaldiyeh, but local friends warned me against it, so I decided to return to Old Waer. The demonstration emerging from the Rawda mosque in front of the fire department was joined by another demonstration coming from the Omarein mosque (formerly named the president's mosque).


Many men stood on the fringes, just observing.


"How many martyrs do you want before you join us?" the demonstrators shouted to the onlookers, who were then shamed into coming closer and taking part. Some of the chants were led by children sitting on others' shoulders.


At 11pm, the protest dispersed as word came of injuries from other demonstrations. Hundreds of locals gathered at the nearby Birr hospital to wait for the ambulances. One of the wounded was Ahmad Fadhil, a former professional football player from the opposition stronghold of Khaldiyeh. He was shot in the side of his abdomen. The body of Hassan Muhamada, slain by security forces during the noon demonstrations earlier in the day, was in the morgue.


As we left the hospital, another body was brought in. People said the Nur mosque in Khaldiyeh had been surrounded by security forces, which opened fire on it. "It was Khaldiyeh's turn," a friend of mine said.


An opposition leader from the area joined us later. He had heard rumours of someone writing in a notebook in English. He was incensed at the men I was with for allowing people to see me. Sitting in one of their houses later that night, we heard shooting and shouts of "God is great!" in the distance. "Security is here," one of them said. "We need to get Nir out of here immediately."


Breakfast in Ramel

On August 8 I visited the coastal city of Latakia. Its seaside slum of Ramel was another opposition stronghold. It was surrounded by nine checkpoints controlling every road into and out of it.


My friend Khalil called two friends from Ramel, Abed and Muhammad, and they came to pick us up. All were in their 20s and thin. Abed and Muhammad were both activists. Abed was dark and had the hardened look of a street fighter, sporting a bullet dangling from a chain necklace.


The three young men discussed how best to get me in without having soldiers or security members stop me and check my ID. They debated whether a bus or taxi was best, and finally decided we should walk in one by one.


We approached the hilltop where the soldiers stood.


"Just walk behind me," Abed said. A few feet behind him, I tried to casually walk, holding my breath and passing the piles of sandbags and the soldiers who ignored me as they leaned forward to look inside a car.


We continued down the hill into Ramel, past a makeshift checkpoint set up by local opposition activists. They had piled sandbags into tall walls and built a gate using poles and barrels. The neighbourhood's corners and streets were full of such checkpoints. The walls around them were pockmarked by bullets.


"This is the first line of defence," said Abed.


"Do they enter the neighbourhood?" I asked.


"They cannot," he replied proudly. "People here are steadfast, they fight back and they have killed security men, but not the army."


The neighbourhood's buildings were short, built of concrete and cinderblocks, unpainted and unfinished, with reinforcing bars used in construction protruding every which way out of them. People sat on rooftops and in the streets.


Before the demonstration, organisers played billiards to relax. One activist who was in charge of filming the demonstration waved his arm around at a crowd of activists behind him.


"All these guys are wanted," he told me, "Those who aren't wanted wear masks."


I met an older man with a raspy voice whose job was to produce the large banners for the demonstration. The younger men seemed impatient for the protest to begin.


"The people want the execution of the president!" chimed one youth waiting with friends.


After the conclusion of iftar - a meal during Ramadan that breaks the fast – and evening prayers, protesters emerged from several overflowing mosques and converged en masse. The processions made their way to a large intersection of five different streets that locals had named "Assi Square", in honour of the square used by demonstrators in the city of Hama. Women on balconies and roofs ululated as they threw rice and homemade confetti down on the demonstrators.


Protesters carried banners and gathered by the thousands in the square. Large loudspeakers were set up, and a large screen was hung off of a building. On a construction platform they placed a projector, and an MC with a microphone stood atop it, leading the unruly crowd in song along, with a drummer. Children shot small firecrackers into the air. "Oh Muslims, where are you?" they sang. "Hafez al Assad is the dog of the Arab nation" (mocking the historic slogan that he was "leader of the Arab nation").


The screen showed live footage of demonstrations in Syria broadcast by Al Jazeera. When the screen shifted from a live shot of Homs to a live shot of us in Ramel, the crowd went wild, jumping, clapping and shouting, singing loudly in unison, shooting more fireworks into the air.


Ghost towns

On August 10, I drove with another friend, Najim, to the Damascus neighbourhood of Maadamiya, where the Zeytuni mosque was known to be pro-opposition.


Even before the uprising, Sheikh Naim al Hariri of the Zeytuni mosque had been outspoken by Syrian standards and had a reputation as a hardliner. One famous sermon he gave before the uprising was entitled "al wala' wa al bara", elaborating on the Islamic concept of being loyal to Muslims and having nothing to do with non-Muslims. He had been arrested briefly during the summer.


So we drove in that direction.


When we arrived, we found hundreds of security men all over the otherwise dark, deserted streets.


"It's a ghost town," said Najim.


At least a hundred soldiers, security men and thuggish looking civilians stood in the dark in another area, carrying their rifles. Najim wound his way through the alleyways to avoid checkpoints. We passed the Zeytuni mosque and saw that it was closed, its lights out, and a group of soldiers standing guard. We decided it was time to leave.


Two plain clothed security men sat in a car at an exit checkpoint. They checked the IDs of passengers in the car in front of us. At least four buses for security members were parked by them, and a large group of soldiers and armed civilians stood in the dark. We pulled up, and a security man asked to check my ID. I told him I had permission. He took it from me and showed it to the men in the car. He came back, handed me my ID, and said, "Okay, go." I exhaled with relief as we pulled away.


As we travelled under the Zahra bridge in Midan, we passed a police van taking prisoners away. A large crowd in front of a mosque stood watching. There were at least 50 men in partial uniforms, holding clubs - and some carried electric stun guns.


As we left, I saw dozens of security men and civilian thugs standing by Midan's Hassan mosque. I would later learn that security had ambushed men outside a mosque in Midan and violently beaten them. Midan's history as a hotbed of rebellion goes back to the role it played in the anti-French revolt of 1925. It was also the scene of wide-scale riots in 1939 and 1943. In the 1960s it was a centre of conservative opposition to the Baath party under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Habannaka.


Midan's Hassan mosque, named after him, is only one of the many mosques he built with money from his merchant supporters. In the early 1980s, Midan was a stronghold of armed Islamists. The Hassan mosque's 90-year-old sheikh, Krayyim Rajih, is the spiritual heir of Habannaka. During the summer, Rajih was silenced by the regime.


We passed by the Rifai mosque on Kafr Susah roundabout, a few hundred metres from the State Security headquarters. This mosque was also known to be an anti-regime bastion. The Rifai mosque saw violence from the regime from the outset of the uprising. On March 25, after the Friday prayers, demonstrators emerged from the Rifai mosque.


The following week it was surrounded by security forces and people inside were too scared to leave. Sheikh al-Rifai negotiated with security, who promised to let people go home safely if they refrained from demonstrating outside the mosque. But security betrayed the promise, beating people and arresting them.


The following week, security forces prevented demonstrations - though tension resumed in early Ramadan. One disciple of the sheikh was killed in a demonstration. The funeral took place at the Rifai mosque, and in the demonstration that followed people were again beaten and arrested.


On this night I counted up to one hundred members of security forces and civilian thugs - armed with clubs - sat on the roundabout or loitering nearby. Nobody was going in or out of the mosque.


Some neighbourhoods were frightening ghost towns, while the ones right next door were bustling.


Thug life

The following night, my friend Suheib picked me up and we headed to his neighbourhood of Yalda in eastern Damascus to look for a demonstration.


We drove down Daabul Street. On one side, there were four buses and a bunch of civilian thugs and security men with clubs, electric stun guns- and even a shotgun. Further down the other side, by Yalda roundabout, there were two or three buses keeping watch on the Umahat al Mu'mineen mosque.


Suheib stopped by some young bony and bearded men he knew from the neighbourhood. He explained to me that they usually went out to protest.


"Today it's a light security presence," the men laughed. "Yesterday, there were 19 minibuses in the neighbourhood."


Numerous young men were gathered on the streets - should security forces come, they would descend on them with stones, or delay them in case they were coming to arrest somebody, giving them time to flee.


We continued to the Daf Eshaq area nearby. There were many security men and civilian thugs by its Hussein mosque.


Back in the centre of town, I saw up to one hundred security and civilian thugs under the Midan bridge, and even more inside Midan's streets. A Red Crescent ambulance on standby was parked up.


In the Nahar Eshi area, there were more than fifty security personnel and thugs with shotguns, rifles and clubs, and several buses for them. It looked like the aftermath of a clash.


Nearby, at the Ashmar roundabout, another flock of fifty security guards and ruffians stood around, waiting. I saw the same thing at the Marji roundabout in the centre of town. Dozens of security guards and thugs sat inside a building under construction, and also perched on its second floor looking down.


In the Rukn Eddin neighbourhood, I saw a bus with a large cluster of pro-regime hoodlums and security guards on Assad Eddin street. In the same neighbourhood's Shimdeen roundabout, I saw three buses full of security personnel, some with rifles. In the Sheikh Muhyedin area I saw more security men by Tarbiya roundabout.


Mosques close up shop

Four days later, on the night of August 15, I returned to Midan and found that its important Hassan mosque was either abandoned or closed, while two other mosques each had about twenty security members waiting in front of them.


The Rifai mosque of Kafar Susah also had its regular huge deployment of security forces, and not far off I saw security staff armed with rifles and stun guns. And there were yet more security and thugs in front of a mosque by Meisal roundabout.


The next night, I again joined up with Najim and we decided to pass by the Rifai mosque. Two teenaged thugs stood brazenly, wielding clubs right in front of the mosque's gate, while other security forces were deployed as usual on the roundabout, and outside adjacent buildings.


The Zeytuni mosque of Maadamiya remained closed. Qadam was a ghost town. I saw several security buses outside, and inside three pickup trucks drove by me, packed with men carrying shotguns and clubs.


In Qadam, people stared suspiciously at us. We were the only car driving through its dark streets. At the entrance to the Hajar al Aswad district, regime symbols had been torn down or defaced. In the main Hajar al Aswad roundabout, another large contingent of security forces and men armed with shotguns and clubs were present. Some were sitting and drinking tea, others looked sleepy.


The main market was open, however. Women were shopping and children played with firecrackers. Soldiers at a checkpoint before Daraya checked the IDs of all passengers.


We pressed on past a checkpoint, where a soldier lazily waved us through, and arrived in Maadamiya. Baladiya square in Maadamiya had more than 50 soldiers in full kit - armed with with rifles - standing and waiting. Dozens of armed security men stood in front of the still-closed Zeytuni mosque.


Throughout the pitch black neighbourhood, I saw soldiers and security forces deployed, stopping the occasional car and checking IDs. No shops were open and there were no pedestrians on the streets of this large neighbourhood.


"Movement is paralysed," Najim said.


Movement seemed perfectly fine, however, in the Palestinian Yarmuk camp, where a pro-regime demonstration was taking place late that night.


Mourning the dead

The next day, I joined a friend in order to attend two funerals. So far, in August alone, eight young men from Homs had died in State Security detention.


We visited the family of 23 year-old Abdelkarim Siyufi, who was killed two days previously near the Fardus mosque in Inshaat after tarawih prayers. Mourners visited the family in a mosque in the Ghota neighbourhood. Abdelkarim's father told me that his son had been shot in the head, kidney and groin.


More than a hundred men were seated in the mosque to pay their respects when I visited. They would stay for a short while and leave as new visitors came in. It seemed as if all the men of the area came to offer their condolences. There was strong solidarity with the families of martyrs.


Nearly one hundred men were also seated with Jamal Fatwa's family. Jamal had been in his 20s. He and a friend, Khaled Mrad, were both arrested on August 5 after they were stopped and security forces found a microphone used for protests in their car. Five days later, Khaled was returned, dead, to his family. Ten days later, Jamal's family was told to pick up his corpse. The bones in his chest were crushed. Both youths had been held by State Security.


A sheikh sat with the mourners and called upon God to destroy their enemies. He spoke of the martyrs: "We are all Jamal." He recounted the story of Ammar bin Yasser, an early convert to Islam and close companion of the Prophet Muhammad, who was known for his deep faith.


Ammar's father, Yasser, and mother, Samiya, were slaves to a cruel owner. When Ammar's parents, brother and other relatives accepted Islam, they were attacked, their property destroyed. Ammar's relatives were chained, taken to the desert, stretched under the sun and placed beneath large blocks of stone for all to hear their cries of pain so they would be discouraged from converting to Islam.


Ammar's mother was later stabbed to death, becoming the first martyr of Islam. Then Ammar's father and uncle were killed. Ammar himself was tortured and forced to curse the Prophet.


"Oh members of the family of Yasser!" said the Prophet, "Be patient. You have been promised paradise."


The sheikh reminded the mourners of Ammar's family - and of how many martyrs they had lost - and of the words spoken by the Prophet Muhammad.

"Be patient, people of Homs," said the sheikh visiting Jamal's family. "You have been promised paradise."


You can follow Nir Rosen on Twitter @nirrosen





Video: Al Jazeera's Nir Rosen on the Syrian uprising 


Journalist who reported for weeks during protests, discusses government attempts to spark sectarian civil war.


Activists across Syria are preparing for another day of mass protests following Friday prayers, as security forces continue their deadly crackdown on dissent in the seventh month of the uprising.


More than 3,000 protesters and activists have been killed by security forces across the country since March, according to Syrian opposition groups.


Al Jazeera's Nir Rosen, a journalist who spent several weeks in cities and villages across Syria during the uprising, discusses his experiences there.


Rosen talks about how the government has manipulated the sectarian divisions in trying to push the country into civil war.