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Dispatches From Damascus: I Get Searched In the Old City

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At the beginning of the uprising against the Syrian government, the protests against the regime routinely took place on Fridays -- the Islamic day of prayer and the first day of the weekend. Back then, everyone would spend the still-normal working week nervously anticipating another round of protests and deaths, and every Friday the government and its supporters would shut down the capital to a progressively greater extent in an attempt to smother the growing protest movement.

Even now, the uprising having long since degenerated into a vicious civil war, and news of violence and destruction having become constant throughout the week, the old city is noticeably tenser and quieter on Fridays.

During the week the checkpoint near my house is staffed by a group of relaxed middle-aged soldiers who are fairly familiar with everyone in the neighbourhood and only occasionally bother to stop people to ask them for their documents. Instead, they spend most of their time trying to keep warm by the wood-fired stove in their small shelter. This was originally a simple affair but over the course of the last few months it has evolved to become a small wooden house with a piece of glass salvaged from a grocery store for a window, and a Syrian flag and a large photo of the president for decoration.

On recent Fridays, however, the regular soldiers have been assisted by a pair of younger, more athletic and more serious colleagues. One of them, sporting a thin scar running horizontally across his face, sat on a chair on the footpath scanning through people's documents, while another stood nearby holding his rifle, politely stopping anyone who tried to sneak past.

Also present on Fridays are the members of the local "Popular Committees" -- essentially civilian loyalists that have been provided with weapons by the government. In my neighbourhood they are hardly seen during the week, but spend Fridays standing guard on various street corners. One Friday recently a young armed guard was standing at the junction of the small covered lane in which my house is located and the wider lane that it branches off, watching me as I exited my house.

In addition to these soldiers and armed loyalists, un-armed, plain-clothes security officers are also distributed throughout the old city much more openly and in greater numbers than during the week. One Friday afternoon I left my house to buy something to eat. I was spotted by a middle aged man with a close cropped beard and a mullet, wearing a cream jacket and beige pants with black sneakers, and with a pair of plastic wrap-around sunglasses perched on his forehead.

He called me over and took my documents and after looking at them he asked me to wait while he used his walkie-talkie to summon a colleague. He suggested, and then insisted, that I sit on a plastic chair while we waited. After a few minutes his colleague arrived, a large and friendly man with a beard and a receding hairline wearing a black leather jacket. The two of them looked through my documents and asked me about my reasons for being in Syria. They then questioned me in detail about the exact location of my house and the identity of the owner before letting me go on my way.

The same night I was again out walking in the street, when I was spotted by another plain-clothes security officer -- this time a balding overweight man wearing a thin grey track suit, accompanied by an armed soldier in jeans and a camouflage jacket. The man in the tracksuit seemed to take his job more seriously than the others I had encountered and was thus considerably less polite and more suspicious. He also took the trouble to carefully look through my passport and as he did so he saw stamps from some of the other countries I had visited, and these aroused his suspicion of me even further.

Having questioned me about where I lived and my reasons for being in Syria he insisted on accompanying me back to my neighbourhood in order to check my story with the soldiers stationed there. As he, the soldier and I walked back towards my house, he spoke constantly into his walkie-talkie, repeating my name and the countries that I had been to whoever was on the other end.

At one point the three of us, walking line abreast, were blocking the narrow street and a man on a scooter approached us from behind and tooted at us rudely. The man in the tracksuit turned around and spoke harshly to the man, causing him to back away visibly frightened.

When we arrived at the checkpoint near my house the security officer conferred with the soldiers and after a few more minutes of questions, and some careful checking of my passport and my residence permit, I was allowed to go home.

The following Friday one of my Syrian housemates returned to the house late in the morning and proceeded to knock on everybody's doors, warning us that an army patrol would soon be coming to search our house. I was told that the army was in the process of systematically searching the old city's houses for any opposition fighters that were attempting to hide out there, and that they concentrated on a different neighbourhood every Friday.

A few minutes later the soldiers arrived and split up in order to check our papers and search each room. One young soldier came to my room and questioned me, asking to see my passport and rental contract. Another soldier came to my room and looked around it quickly, asking me about a few of the things that I had left lying around.

He then asked to see what was in my laptop and sat down next to me on my bed with his Kalashnikov still slung over his shoulder. I showed him an innocuous English-language website that I had been reading and he looked at it uncomprehendingly and asked me directly whether or not I had had any contact with the armed opposition groups. I assured him that I hadn't and he seemed satisfied with my answer and got up and left my room.

Once they had finished their search the soldiers sat down and in the courtyard and chatted amicably with my Syrian housemates. After a little while their officer arrived and quickly asked us all the same questions before leading his men away to search the next house.