Syrian Protesters Want Their Own Tahrir Square

Activists in Syria have been bemoaning the lack of a central square in the Syrian capital Damascus. Like the Egyptians who have Tahrir Square, they want a central place from where they can launch protests. David Greene talks with reporter Wendell Steavenson, who writes about life in Damascus in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

While Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's grip on power continues to weaken, Syria's president still maintains control of his country. For months, the Syrian government has brutally cracked down on all signs of protest; monitoring everything from online chat rooms to city squares.

Reporter Wendell Steavenson writes in this week's New Yorker, just how difficult it is for Syrian activists to organize. And she joined us now from Cairo.

WENDELL STEAVENSON: Hi, it's nice to be here.

GREENE: So, you recently returned from about two weeks reporting in Damascus. And I wanted to first ask you about two young Kurdish activists who you met. They were talking about their disappointment that Damascus doesn't have a central square, like Egypt has.

Why was that an issue?

STEAVENSON: It's an issue because it's difficult to know where they can gather. The center of Damascus is really a sort of rather pleasant city of squares and roundabouts, and there are several of them - I mean lots of them, maybe 20 or 25. And there isn't one that's sort of dominant or has a, sort of, representational resonance in the way that Tahrir did.

And what's happened in the meantime, is that the regime has essentially, kind of, occupy any space where protesters have tried to gather with the shabiha, these sort of bussed in, irregular thugs, plain clothes kids who sometimes pose as vendors or mooch around in sort of threatening little groups, so that the minute that more than 10 or 20 people seem to show up, they're either broken up by these people or reinforcements are called for. So it's really difficult for protesters to amass in any space in central Damascus.

GREENE: That's forced activists to stage what you called flying protests. What are those?

STEAVENSON: They're called flying because they're quick. And the message goes out in various ways, sometimes on Facebook, more often just face to face and hoping to gather a few people. And sometimes as few as 20 or 30 or 50 people will, kind of, show up in one place, walk around the block, unfold a few banners, chant, and then try and disappear as quickly as possible - not to give the security forces a chance to come and beat them and arrest them.

On one occasion friends of mine talked about wearing white, and they managed to get a crowd of about 300 people who just wore white as a kind of identifier protest, a color that represents martyrdom and peace, simultaneously. And they managed to sort of gather, and they tried to repeat that in the same place a week later. Of course, several were arrested and it was stamped out very quickly.

GREENE: They were arrested just for wearing white?

STEAVENSON: Yeah.

GREENE: When people are not able to gather, you actually wrote that they found some pretty innovative ways to get their messages out - taping them inside packages of fruit. Talk about that, a little bit, if you can.

STEAVENSON: Well, they tried, I think, a few months back to go to squares and do things that would not be seen as being obviously against the regime. Several times they tried to sing the national anthem. They were still arrested and beaten. They tried, at one point, to throw roses into a fountain in one of the main squares. But immediately, that the roses had been thrown into the fountain, the security forces would take them out. So that each new person who came to throw a rose had the feeling that they were alone, that nobody else was doing it. So they've tried in different ways to, sort of, circumvent the obvious, but the - you know, the regime is just not having it.

GREENE: Wendell, you wrote about finding many people in Damascus who were still pro-regime, still supporting President Assad. Are they fearful, or what reasons did they give you for not wanting to protest and still supporting the government?

STEAVENSON: I think fearful is the right word. I think there's fear on every side. And I think the fear of what comes next, the fear of an uncertain aftermath, is high. So the atmosphere is indescribably tense and I think the fear is on both sides. The fear from the protesters and the anti-regimists who are afraid of being arrested and tortured, as thousands of them are being; and there's also a lot of fear from minorities, about what comes next, and of violence and retribution that could happen or that they feel could easily happen. Now obviously, activists and protesters are at pains to say, you know, this is not sectarian. This is about freedom. This is about a new kind of government. Everybody should be able to take part in that. But inevitably, you know, when you have this much violence, it's very difficult, sometimes to put, you know, revenge back in the box.

GREENE: Wendell Steavenson writes about her recent visit to Damascus, Syria in the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine. Wendell, thanks so much for talking to us.

STEAVENSON: Thank you, David.

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