By: Ashley Fantz
In a concrete block apartment building in a working-class Syrian suburb, a young man who calls himself “Big Al” spends his days listening to Nine Inch Nails on his smartphone. He watches back-to-back episodes of “The Simpsons” on his laptop while he shovels a pan of brownies into his mouth.
He loves to cook. It’s the only thing keeping him going.
“I’m a big guy, and I like to cook and bake,” he says. “Since I’ve been jobless for more than a year, and there are no activities to do, I get busy baking. In fact, I made more pizzas and cookies this year than I did in the past three years.”
When the electricity is on, there he’ll be, in a tiny kitchen in his parents’ apartment, stirring and sifting and tasting. He’ll hear gunfire popping in the distance; sometimes the boom of a shell landing shakes the apartment. He is scared. Of course he is scared. Fear settles on everything. His eyelids are heavy. But what else can he do but keep on living?
It’s scorching hot in Syria, but Al always keeps the windows open a little. Pressure from explosions around his Homs neighborhood can cause glass to break. This is one of the lessons he’s learned from war.
He’s also learned to keep his laptop plugged in so it can soak up whatever electricity might come on, if it does. Al loves the Internet. To him, it’s freedom. He can say what he wants and be who he would like to be, something like the goofy, happy guy he used to be before so many people started dying in his country.
Al spends hours hunched over his keyboard, typing, working on his blog, Thoughts and Feelings of a Syrian Freedom Fighter. Its entries, thousands of words, white letters against a black background, are nothing like the usual bomb and body-count stories about Syria.
Al’s blog is a detailed diary of a young man’s life interrupted, days and nights existing in two states: mundane, almost zombie-like boredom and then sudden, run-for-your life terror.
He writes about sleeping through outages and waiting in lines for hours for a bit of bread. He describes venturing out to buy vegetables — he and his parents have to get food somewhere — and being caught in crossfire in the street. He says he drains whole days watching his collection of DVDs and peering through his window to watch young men around his age outside on his street, laughing and firing their guns into the air for no apparent reason than because they can.
It’s very difficult for journalists to verify information from inside Syria because the government has restricted access by international press. Media rely many times on video and other materials posted online to have an insight into what is happening there. Some have been proved to be fake, but CNN has carefully examined Al and his blog. He has given information that only someone inside Homs, a Syrian city in the center of much of the violence, would know.
CNN believes these are his experiences.
A friend dies; a blog is born
“The big bad wolf is coming/ No one knows what he looks like.”
That is a line from Al’s first post in September, nearly six months into a violent rebellion in Syria. Young people about his age had begun protesting in March 2011, chanting that they’d had enough of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held power for 42 years.
He joined them. He thought it would work. Why wouldn’t the result of their demonstrations in Syria be like the uprisings that sank dictators in Tunisia or Egypt? But weeks became months; summer came and went. More and more Syrians protesting al-Assad’s rule died, typically in increasingly vicious clashes with the regime’s military forces.
By fall, Al realized his country was becoming a place he didn’t recognize. He was worried. Things were really bad.
Then they got worse, and very personal.
In September, one of Al’s good friends was killed in street violence.
He wrote a poem about it in the voice of what he imagined his friend’s killers thought. He wanted other activists to read it.
We don’t care if you’re young or old
We don’t care if you’re big or small
We don’t care if you’re black or white, rich or poor
You’re all the same in our eyes
You’re all.. Nothing
After he published it, he was shocked when people not only saw it but wrote to him. He decided to keep writing, “to tell the story from the beginning,” he explained.
He began using a Microsoft Word document to keep track of everything he experienced, which he would post whenever he could get access to the Internet.
In a single post, “Life in Homs,” published June 14, Al details a single day: He goes out to a bakery, stands in a line that balloons from 11 people to 100, buys a dollar’s worth of bread and returns home.
Around the time of the publication of this post, there are streams of reports in the media that are overwhelmingly horrifying.
To suppress rebels fighting to oust al-Assad, human rights observers say, the president’s forces are systematically torturing and killing children, shooting babies and other innocents, slaying whole families in their homes.
Syrian security forces, soldiers and pro-regime militias are using sexual violence to torture people in detention and sexually abuse women and girls as young as 12 during raids, Human Rights Watch documented.
Photojournalists captured images of blood-stained walls, suggesting executions were being carried out.
On the other side of the fight, a leader of a rebel group said they had turned to making homemade explosives.
The international community watched and waited, trying to gauge what was happening in Syria. It got some kind of answer the second week in June, when the United Nations peacekeeping chief said he thought Syria was locked in a civil war. Such a designation, experts have said, generally make it less appealing for foreign nations to become involved in the conflict.
Big Al also watches the news when he can.
He blogged June 14:
“8:30 AM, I watched the news, got depressed and went back to bed (Since I don’t have a business to go to, because it’s been closed for over a year now, like most other businesses in Homs, but that’s a story for another time). In bed I tried to check my email and twitter but I found out that 3G and GPRS aren’t working. I don’t have ADSL at home so I have no internet connection now. No big deal, I’m used to it. But unlike the previous six days we have fresh water since morning.”
On this day, after his morning breakfast trip to buy bread, he goes out again to buy vegetables. The trip quickly turns into a life and death situation. He is caught in a gunbattle between a tank and what seem to be random people shooting in the street. He turns his smartphone on the scene and records it.
“(There was) shooting and it was only 5 meters away from me. I was inside the store so I lied down on the floor next to the salesman. The glass shattered and the goods started falling from the shelves on us because the entire place was shaking badly.”
By the time the drama of the shooting ends, Al describes seeing families near the shop packing up and trying to leave.
“As I was walking home, many families were packing their stuff in their cars and fleeing the neighborhood. Many left the area in the past week, and only a few are still living here. Some of them asked me if they can use the street I came from and I said no and told them to be careful.
“I arrived home at 1:30 PM, and found both of my parents standing on the balcony waiting for me, and that drove me insane more than what I just came from. Our balcony has been shot so many times before, and I have a collection of bullets from it. It’s filled with holes and even my AC was shot a while back.
“I went up and we had a really bad fight, and I did most of the yelling if not all.
“My mother told me that when she heard the shooting and I told her to leave me alone, she was so scared she couldn’t think straight anymore. She found herself going out the balcony hoping to see me without thinking about her personal safety. My dad followed her and they both stayed out there until I came back.”
A few months ago, his neighborhood seemed like a safe place for people who lived around Homs, a city of half a million people. CNN isn’t disclosing Big Al’s neighborhood to protect his identity and safety.
“All empty houses got filled, even schools and abandoned buildings. The destruction of major markets in Homs left most people without jobs, so they saved what good they can save and started selling their products on the streets,” he explained in an e-mail.
He and his parents argue over whether they should leave their home. They always end up fighting over it, he said.
Big Al said he and his parents have rounded up all their important possessions and put them in two suitcases. The bags are ready to go at a moment’s notice.
One suitcase has clothes; the other contains nonperishable food. A briefcase contains personal documents, money, medicine and jewelry. The family wrote a list of what they packed.
In an April post, he wrote, “I’ve always said that I prefer getting killed than leaving my house and becoming a refugee, and I might prove this very soon. I won’t leave my house to anyone. I live or die here. I know I’m not being smart with this decision, but that’s who I am. I know my rights as a human being, and I will take them or die fighting for them.”
A good Ba’ath scout
Al says his friends have all left Homs; most have left Syria. His relatives, except for his parents, are also gone.
His parents, he says, don’t always understand why young people chose to demonstrate against al-Assad. He has told them his generation wants to be freer. He tells them they should have stood up when they were younger.
“I have to spoken to my parents about this a lot when they try to tell me what to do regarding the movement,” he explained. “I tell them that they did nothing, so they don’t have the right to tell us what to do.”
Early in his blog, Big Al posted several entries he called “chapters,” lengthy entries that touch on major moments in his life.
He recalls one incident from when he was a teenager. He was watching television at home when the station abruptly switched to classical music.
“Someone died. Someone important. … My heart skipped a beat. It happened. I knew it happened before they say anything. Hafez Assad is dead. They announced it. I froze.
“I told my family and they didn’t believe me.
” ‘Hafez Assad can’t die’ my mom said in shock.
“We gathered in front of the TV. It’s over. The dictator is dead… Is this over? Are we finally free of this family? Could this be real?”
Hafez al-Assad had held power since 1970 after serving in the Syrian air force and rising in the ranks of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party.
He and the entire al-Assad family, with their political connections and power, were known for taking on contracts in key industries like telecommunications, banking and oil.
The cornerstone of Hafez al-Assad’s rule, many say, is not growing the Syrian economy or expanding its reach in the oil sector. Rather, the al-Assad patriarch is known for a 1982 massacre in the western city of Hama, a beautiful and ancient metropolis with cobblestone streets and ornate buildings.
An uprising took root there in the early 1980s, a movement that portended trouble for Hafez’s grip on power.
To quell it, government forces, led by Hafez’s brother Rifaat al-Assad, shelled entire neighborhoods.
There was no official death toll, but historians and human rights groups have said that between 10,000 and 30,000 Syrians were killed.
Big Al had not been born.
“We were taught many things at a very young age, and those things were stuck in my head even though I didn’t completely understand them,” he wrote December 21 in a post titled ”The Beginning.”
Big Al was raised in Homs.
“Like many other boys, he joined the Baath Scouts when he was in elementary school. Just like everybody else in my generation, and I had absolutely no idea what does ‘Talae3 Al Baath’ mean …”
He posted some of the songs and mottos he learned as a child:
” يحيا يحيا مين حبيب الملايين
بطل تشرين الصامد أبو سليمان القائد”
” ‘Translation: Long live, the one who’s loved by the millions, the hero of October, Abu Suliman the leader’ Abu Suliman is what we used to call Hafez Assad, it changed to Abu Basel a while after.”
In Arabic, Abu means father; Basel, the name of Hafez al-Assad’s eldest son, can mean lion or strong.
Hafez al-Assad was born to a poor family but rose to lead the Arab Socialist Baath Party.
Al remembers the first commandment of Al Baath Scouts. “We love our big Arab world, our country Syria, and Al Baath Party.”
Al’s parents always told him how great Syria’s leader was.
When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad was rubber-stamped into power by Syria’s parliament.
Bashar Al-Assad had studied ophthalmology in London. Just before he took control of Syria, he married a stylish British-born woman. Asma al-Assad had worked as a banker in London.
In the early 2000s, the first couple was photographed smiling and looking sharp. They went to art openings. Asma al-Assad aligned herself with charities for the poor and disabled. The al-Assads talked about making Syria more open and free. The international press deemed them modern and progressive.
“We had hope that Bashar is a better man, a more enlighten(ed) man, and of course, a more merciful man than his father was,” Al blogged.
During that time, national politics wasn’t on Al’s mind anyway. He was off to college and thrilled to distance himself from the country’s military training, which he says he’d been forced to participate in — if only to show up and go through the motions.
Away at college, he thought he could get away with skipping all that.
“And most importantly, no stupid uniform and no mottos to repeat like a parrot without meaning any of them. I was about to have a space of freedom I never had before. And I’m gonna enjoy it,” Al wrote.
At first, Bashar al-Assad allowed more freedoms. Syrians were allowed to install satellite dishes. Private — not state-controlled — universities opened. Dial-up Internet connections were available.
But by 2010, Syria was beset with incompetent and bribe-hungry government workers and police, Big Al blogged. So when the Arab Spring uprisings started and the people suddenly seemed capable of forcing change, “the tiny light of hope in every Syrian’s heart tripled. Tunisia did it. Egypt did it. It is possible!” Al blogged.
Al rarely sleeps through the night.
“I simply have no life anymore,” he wrote in an e-mail. “A good night of sleep is a dream to people in Homs. Waking up in the middle of the (night) to the middle of unbelievable loud explosions is a common thing now.”
Sometimes, to drown out the sounds coming from outside, he’ll put on his headphones and listen to music: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Foo Fighters. His favorite, the one he plays when he can’t sleep, is ”The End” by the Doors.
“Jim Morrison,” Big Al said, “is my idol.”
Not long ago, Al started thinking about what it would have been like to not be born in Syria. In a blog post, he writes about Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO whose biological father is Syrian.
Jobs was born in America and adopted by a couple in California.
Al wondered, what if Jobs had grown up in Syria?
“(He would) live a cheap house in a cheap area like Baba Amr or Khaldieh, and eventually get killed while the city is being bombed by the military or get arrested for tweeting something about freedom.
“How many Steve Jobs could my city and my country bring to the world?” Al blogged. “How many Steve Jobs have been killed by Assad’s army in the past 41 years?”
Two men just talking
In June, Big Al wrote in an e-mail, “We are in a stage where we just don’t really care anymore. We’re all depressed all the time, and we fight each other about everything.”
In a post titled ”Is anybody out there?” he wrote, “No connection, no electricity, no food, no services, and an unbelievably vicious attack on the city.”
Al is often annoyed and bored with the redundant nature of his posts.
“Shelling, shooting, arresting, and chasing… The sounds of shelling and shooting were like any other day…”
In March, he goes outside. It’s snowing. Then, something that might seem extraordinary to people outside Syria: Al describes talking with a security forces officer in the street.
“The streets were empty and the sounds of shelling could be heard every few seconds coming from afar, and shooting from nearby as well. I heard someone calling me from the darkness and couldn’t see who it was, they told me not to be scares, but I wasn’t anyway.
“I walked towards the voice and found a member of the security forces, he was wearing his uniform and holding his rifle and standing behind a wall. He asked me what I wanted and why I was there, and then he told me not to walk in that area at night and to be careful. He was nice to me and he even offered me some water if I didn’t have any at home. I asked him what he thinks will happen next, he hesitated to answer, but it was obvious what he was trying to say.
“He mumbled something about Libya and Egypt, and that was enough. He’s a good guy, but he was too scared to leave his barrier and join the free army. I asked him if he needed a place to stay in and I was hinting that I can help him leave Assad forces, but he didn’t answer. I walked away from him without saying another word. I wish I could protect him, but I can’t even protect myself.”
Later, Al would continue watching the same online videos as the rest of world, images that were so repulsive and violent, words seemed pointless.
“By the end of March I didn’t want to write anymore as I felt like I’ve been writing the same things over and over again. The situation in Homs didn’t change for two months and every day is the same. A vicious circle of shelling, shooting, arresting, and chasing has been controlling us all for a long time and especially since early February.
“Today was the first day of the eight days Annan gave Syria to stop all types of violence, but seems like the regime misunderstood what Annan is trying to do as their attacks spread to new areas, and that’s why I have decided to write again, as for the first time ever, I was able to see buildings being hit directly without leaving my house.
“A cheesy thought came to my mind since we’re in April. The Syrian regime decided to fool Kofi Annan and the rest of the world by accepting to ceasefire on April 1st. This is the greatest April fool’s of all time. Assad will call the Security Council on the 12th and be like “I GOT YOU! OH I GOT YOU GOOD!” and they’ll laugh and forget about us forever.”
In late May, at least 50 people, including 13 children, were killed when Syrian forces attacked the town of Houla in Homs province, anti-government activists said.
Syria’s government denied that its troops were behind the bloodbath, and a Foreign Ministry spokesman denounced a “tsunami of lies” against al-Assad’s government.
Videos posted on YouTube show demonstrations in cities across the country, including Damascus, Daraa, Idlib and the suburbs of Hama.
“Oh Houla, we are with you until death,” they chanted.
Al published a blog entry May 29 recalling the Houla massacre.
“Today started like any other day in my sad city Homs. Gunfire and shelling sounds could be heard every now and then, but that didn’t stop the people from going out to buy food and other basic things.
“The streets in the safe neighborhoods turned into markets where sellers use the sidewalks to show their products, like vegetables, Hummus, bread, and sometimes shoes. But then again there are no real safe neighborhoods in Homs anymore. Mortar shells and gunshots can come out of nowhere to take lives.
“Shelling in Houla started slowing down but not in other area, and that helped some people get inside to check what happened, and that’s when the reports started coming.
“I will never forget that night. I can never forgive those monsters. And I ask you to not forget what happened there in Houla. That big scar in the face of all humanity will never fade away.”
Al feels a kind of guilt about what happened.
“We are truly sorry we failed you Houla,” he writes. “We are ashamed of ourselves.”
Al’s latest blog came July 29. It’s long, a compendium of notes he’s been keeping over the past few months. Much of it just a couple lines for each day. They read like the top lines of news stories. There are accounts of shells dropping and clashes in the street. An explosion has hit near his house and rattled the windows. It’s been difficult to get online, he writes, and cell phone networks are down all the time.
“June 20th, the numbers of casualties are increasing every day. The attacks have become more vicious than ever all over Syria. Still no cellphones, 3G, or Dial up.”
CNN continued to communicate with Al. He had been thinking a lot about the chance Syria seemed to have months and the initialoptimism he felt in the days after a cease-fire negotiated by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan earlier in the spring.
“The Syrian regime promised the UN/AL envoy Kofi Annan to execute his plan and ceasefire starting April 12th at 6 AM.
“I woke up to see if the regime will do what they promised, and I must say that I didn’t hear a single gunshot all morning. I know this regime too well, and I know they might break their promise at any point, but I took an oath to write what I witness and not lie about it, and in this case, the regime did what they promised. The soldiers, security forces members, and vehicles are still everywhere, but there’s no shelling or shooting anywhere.”
Annan quit this week as the special peace envoy, casting serious doubt that a diplomacy could quell Syria’s bloodshed. Annan cast wide blame for why his effort failed, including a “clear lack of unity” within the U.N. Security Council, the failure of the al-Assad regime to cooperate and Syrian rebels’ continued fighting. But he did offer parting advice that there still could be reason to hope.
Al recalls on his blog how his own optimism faded quickly after the first try at a cease-fire, an initiative that seemed to end as soon as it began.
“April 14th, the quiet mornings are over, and the horrible shellingsounds and smoke clouds are back at the same rate like Annan and his ceasefire plan didn’t even exist.”
“The same view I saw back in April 3rd and 4th. Buildings being hit by missiles and getting destroyed in two different areas.
“I knew this was coming, yet I couldn’t help but to feel overwhelmed.”
May was more of the same.
“May 28th, another unbelievable night of excessive shelling. I didn’t count the explosions as they were too many. 3-4 explosions could be heard in a row at times, and that kept going all night and into the morning.”
On June 16, Al sees a helicopter flying over Homs. “A little after that the UN observers announced the suspension of their mission due to the increase of violence in Syria.”
More tanks have shown up in his neighborhood in the past few weeks. “My area has become a playfield for tanks and security forces are always around with their vehicles,” he blogged. “And pickup trucks, and of course their guns.”
“I’m having such a bad day and have the worst feeling in my gut,” Al recently wrote in an e-mail.
His messages all seem like that now, resigned to whatever is coming.