A few days ago, my friend Hussam Melhim, a Syrian blogger jailed for writing a poem criticizing Bashar al-Assad, was released after five years in prison. I too was jailed by Assad’s regime. After 40 days of isolation and torture—punishment for my political activism—I was released in 2007.
Despite the fact that the regime has killed more than 100 protesters in the past few days, those of us who have fought for a democratic Syria have reason for optimism. Each day there are new demonstrations breaking out all over the country, even in small towns like Hajar Aswad. In the southern city of Daraa, the whole city is rebelling against the regime.
On Wednesday, Assad’s special forces stormed Daraa. They honed in on the mosque where protesters had gathered—but only after the regime had cut electricity, Internet and land-lines, and banned reporters from entering the city.
I called a couple of friends based in Daraa, and I was able to hear the shooting and the voices of protesters screaming.
The call for these protests began on Facebook. The main organizers have chosen to remain anonymous—but one thing is clear: They are not Islamists. On the Facebook group Syrian Revolution Against Bashar al-Assad, which has 60,000 members so far, Fadi Edlbi posted the slogan «National unity, all for freedom, Muslims and Christians!» Another member, Shadi Deeb, wrote: «Not Sunni, not Allawite, all chant for freedom!»
The movement that began on computer screens has spread to the most unexpected places. On March 18, a friend who had gone to the main mosque in Damascus for Friday prayers said that when the imam finished his sermon someone in the crowd started chanting «Freedom, freedom!» As he chanted, he held up a paper with the sign of the cross and crescent as a symbol of unity. Within seconds, the hundreds of people gathered in the Umayyad Mosque began to chant along with him. Minutes later, the security forces stormed the mosque and started to beat the worshippers. These plain-clothed security forces added insult to injury by entering the mosque with their shoes on.
Protests that Friday weren’t limited to Damascus. Syrians demonstrated in Homs City, Dair Al Zour, the coastal city of Banias, and Daraa. While in the other cities the demonstrations didn’t last longer than an hour, in Daraa the protesters persist and the crowds remain large.
Why are those in Daraa so determined? There, Syrians watched as 15 children were arrested earlier this month simply for drawing graffiti on the wall of their school that said, «The people want to take down the regime.» The kids that did this were in the fourth grade. They had no idea that this tiny act of rebellion would lead to their arrest by the secret services—from their classrooms.
On Wednesday, they were released after more than two weeks of being detained. My friend who saw them told me, «It’s horrible. There were scars all over their bodies. And their nails were pulled from their hands.»
Yesterday, in response to the most widespread demonstrations so far, the regime killed at least 20 people in Daraa, three in Damascus, and four in the coastal town of Latakia. Protesters all over the country shouted: «We sacrifice our souls and blood for you, Daraa.» Everyone I speak to says protests will continue. I don’t expect them to let up.
Mr. Al Hendi is the Arabic program coordinator for the U.S.-based human rights organization Cyberdissidents.org