CAIRO, Egypt — With their Skype accounts chirping incoming chats and multiple TVs filling the room with grainy images of their countrymen and women marching with banners, or jumping up and down in songs and chants, the weight of long months of death and destruction on the shoulders of the young Syrian activists appeared to ease, just a little.
“Today was a real morale boost,” said Rami Jarrah, co-director of the recently formed Activists News Association (ANA), a group based in Cairo which supports citizen journalists inside Syria and helps verify, publish and archive news and videos of the uprising.
“We’ve seen a renewed spirit to demonstrate peacefully and the ceasefire has been generally effective,” he said of Friday's protests in Syria, during which Assad regime forces killed five people, far less than the two weeks leading up to Thursday's UN-Arab League-brokered cease-fire, when daily death tolls often exceeded 100 people.
Saturday Syrian troops fired shells into rebel-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs killing at least one person, activists said. A video released on YouTube today by an established activist network appeared to show Homs' Jouret el-Shayah neighborhood being shelled. But elsewhere the cease-fire largely held.
Particularly pleasing for Jarrah, one of the uprising’s most prominent online campaigners forced to flee Damascus late last year after being arrested, was hearing the return to protests of the songs and slogans which had once defined the uprising, all but drowned out for months amid the regime’s bombardment of rebel strongholds and sectarian massacres.
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“‘God, Syria, freedom only,’ that was what was chanted at the beginning of the revolution, as was, ‘One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.’ The regime tried to kill our morale with its military offensive and we thought we wouldn’t hear this again today. I’m relieved that people still think that way.”
Coming just a day after the UN-Arab League peace plan came into force, today’s protests were a crucial test not only of the Assad regime’s security forces, but also of the strength of the opposition, hammered by a relentless year-long crackdown which leading rights group say has killed over 10,000 people and seen tens of thousands more jailed in a prison system where Human Rights Watch found torture is systematic and widespread.
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By the end of the afternoon in Cairo, the activists at ANA were cautiously optimistic about the opposition turnout which saw tens of thousands of Syrians protesting across the country.
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At least 38 different towns and villages around Damascus, and a few neighborhoods within the city itself, saw protests, according to ANA reporting. Some were very small, only around 50 people, as in the Qudseya suburb, where a member of the opposition Local Coordination Committees told GlobalPost several hundred armed soldiers and plain clothes security had prevented a larger gathering.
In Duma, one of the largest and hardest hit of the satellite towns around Damascus, a large protest of several thousand was reported, despite the town being under a tight security clampdown for nearly a year.
In another eastern suburb of the capital, Jober, several hundred protesters attempted to march on the city’s Abaseen Square, where a football stadium has been turned into a military barracks to prevent protesters reaching the capital’s center.
A reporter for GlobalPost saw security forces open fire on protesters in Jober, injuring at least five.
“The regime accepted the cease-fire just to satisfy Russia and China,” said Ahmed, a 22-year-old protester from Jober. “We want to prove that the regime will use live ammunition to finish our demonstrations.”
In Berze, a neighborhood in the north of Damascus, GlobalPost’s reporter saw secret police and shabiha armed thugs touring in four-wheel drives, holding Kalashnikov rifles out of the windows and shouting at worshippers from mosques to hurry home.
In the fields between Berze and Qaboun hundreds of protesters waved banners attacking Russia and China for their support of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“We have been demonstrating for a year without Kofi Annan’s cease-fire,” said Shadi, a 28-year-old at the Berze protest. “The regime is talking about a cease-fire but even before prayers today it deployed hundreds of security men and shabiha to Berze’s mosques to attack us.”
Outside the capital, security forces opened fire on protests in both Hama and Homs, Syria’s two large, Sunni-majority northern cities which have been strongholds of the opposition and seen the worst of the regime’s assaults.
“There is still no electricity, no food and no cars are allowed to carry food supplies to Homs. It is as though we are living on Robinson Crusoe Island,” said Waleed Fares, a citizen journalist reporting for the campaign group Avaaz in Homs, which was shelled for a month earlier this year, killing at least 700 people.
“People were demonstrating near their destroyed homes with banners asking, ‘Why has the bombing stopped?’” he said, refering to a joke over Homs’ continued isolation.
Read GlobalPost: Syria: Homs attack is a game changer
In the far north-west of Syria, scene of some of the heaviest bombardments of recent weeks as the regime sought to destroy units of the Free Syrian Army which had established themselves in areas close to the border with Turkey, several thousand people protested in Maraat al-Naaman and Idlib.
And in the far south of the country in Daraa, the first city to rise up against the Assad family’s 42-year rule, tanks remained deployed around the flashpoint Omari Mosque, in violation of Annan’s ceasefire plan, while across the southern region several hundred protesters called for the downfall of the regime and were dispersed with live fire.
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In Deir Ezzor, in Syria’s remote eastern deserts, ANA reported 52 individual protests, a record for the tribal areas in the now 13-month-long uprising.
Read GlobalPost: Despite provocation, Syria's powerful tribes cling to peaceful protests.
“I do have moments of despair where there’s no light at end of the tunnel, when I consider all that people have lost, all the torture, all the refugees, the politicians who care nothing about the people,” said Hajer al-Khateeb, a fundraiser for ANA in Cairo. “But we have faith in our just cause and in God and the Syrian people.”
Neither Jarrah nor Khateeb, however, had any faith the Assad regime would stick to the ceasefire if it felt in any way seriously threatened by it.
“I’m sure they don’t believe peaceful protests can topple the regime, because they are so violent themselves. But if they really felt threatened, they will drop the plan and go back to killing,” said Khateeb.
“I just keep thinking about what they’ve got up their sleeves,” said Jarrah, before turning back to his laptop to attend to the news and those all important Skype calls.
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