Syrian Protesters Take To The Streets After Prayers

Melissa Block speaks with a Syrian who uses the pseudonym Alexander Page about demonstrations in Damascus. He says he attended one in central Damascus Friday — and is returning for another one this evening.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Protesters across Syria once again took to the streets after Friday prayers today, and the Syrian regime responded with deadly force. Human rights groups say at least 20 protesters were killed. This, one day after the U.S. and European allies called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Earlier today, we reached a Syrian activist in the capital, Damascus. He goes by the pseudonym Alexander Page out of concern for his safety, and he told us he was among more than 2,000 people who headed to central Damascus today in hopes of staging a mass sit-in.

ALEXANDER PAGE: Just as the protesters headed out of the mosque onto the main street, there was random gunfire coming from different directions. The only direction that we could see the actual gunfire coming from was straight ahead where we were headed. There were people in plainclothes armed with shotguns and AK-47s, basically. So they opened fire directly at the protesters. At this moment, everyone took cover. Some people actually ran away, and then came back because we realized that a lot of people were actually trying to defy the assault and were throwing rocks at the security forces.

BLOCK: Now, so far up until now in Damascus, there haven't been the huge protests that there have been in other parts of Syria. How does that compare with what happened today?

PAGE: Well, there was much more adrenaline today. People were more determined to actually change that. The problem remains in central Damascus. There is a very high security presence it being so sensitive to the government because if a mass protest did take place in central Damascus then it would change everything.

BLOCK: That increased adrenaline that you talked about among the protesters there in Damascus today, do you think that was due at all to the statement coming out yesterday from the White House and from other Western leaders that it's time for President Assad to step down?

PAGE: Oh, of course, partially it must have something to do with that. The moment Europe and the U.S. announced that that he should step down people actually felt some sort of backing. They felt that they weren't isolated anymore, that there was no going back. And not meaning that they're expecting international intervention of a military sort but more to the moral support that's being given now. It's definitely been a drive for the protesters.

BLOCK: I wonder if you were thinking as you listened to the White House statement yesterday, this is too late. We should have heard this from the Obama administration weeks ago, maybe months ago.

PAGE: Well, a lot of people actually think that, and at one point, I probably did think that. But I think with the time that has gone by, it gave people in Syria the chance to escalate in numbers. Maybe if this was announced two months back, maybe this wouldn't have that much of an effect, but with the mass protests that are taking place, I think it did come at a good time, actually.

BLOCK: How do you and your fellow Syrian activists think that the Assad regime will respond to those demands from West - from the Western countries?

PAGE: One thing I've heard a lot in Arabic is once you corner the snake then the snake starts to bite. So the government is now acting randomly. They're trying to silence the protests in any way possible using gunfire, today, in particular, has been a normal thing. Usually, it would be people attacking with batons, with sticks. Today, it was gunfire on every single protest that we heard about in Damascus, in particular.

BLOCK: We have heard before that if Damascus and Aleppo don't see the same kinds of protests that we've seen elsewhere around Syria that the regime will not fall, that it can't fall without those two cities rising up in protest. Do you agree?

PAGE: Yeah. Of course, I agree, but we've seen them growing. It's just the problem is these aren't protests that we're taking part in. A normal protest, you would be safe. You would be able to take your children with you. In Syria, you can't do that. It's just basically a fight against a ferocious regime. It's willing to kill anyone. So we are seeing it, but people are scared. And we're seeing people who are scared now taking to the streets. I know personally a lot of people that are ready to take to the streets for the first time tonight. And I'm feeling really positive about that.

BLOCK: I've been talking with a Syrian activist in the capital, Damascus. He goes by the pseudonym Alexander Page out of concerns for his safety. Thank you very much for your time.

PAGE: Thank you.

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