Al Jazeera reports from the student struggle against the Syrian regime. Pro-government students launched brutal crackdown on protesting peers at Damascus University, amid nationwide unrest.
Holding olive branches and flowers in their hands 150 medical students gathered outside their faculty at Damascus University, their white coats bright in the midday sun.
Outraged at the news that more than a dozen protesters had been killed in Homs in two days, the students dared the previously unthinkable: a rally against the regime on a campus where even a whisper of politics could land you in jail.
“God, Syria, freedom only”, they chanted, their voices reverberating around the university buildings.
From across the campus a large crowd of some 500 students from the Students’ Union, which is run by the Baath party, slowly descended on the protesters. The call for freedom was soon drowned out. “God, Syria, Bashar only”, came the rhythmic chant, the familiar refrain of the regime’s supporters.
“We tried to ignore them at first, but they kept coming closer”, said Mohammad, 22, one of the student protesters. “Then they began to beat us with wooden sticks and their belts.”
The white coats scattered, olive branches and flowers left to be trampled underfoot. “There were so many of them and we didn’t want to fight,” said Mohammed.
“I feel sorry for them, because they do the dirty work of the security services. We were afraid of the secret police, but now we are afraid of our friends who sit next to us or live with us in the same dorms. It is a shame.”
Big Brother watching
At the main gates of Damascus University students and teachers pass under the gaze of a towering statue of the late president Hafez al-Assad, draped in a university robe and holding a stack of books.
While Syria’s socialist Baath party has opened up free university education to hundreds of thousands of students from poorer families, the party has also attempted to smother any form of dissent on campus through a web of informers keeping a watchful eye on the university’s nearly 220,000 students.
Students loyal to the party are rewarded and political life starts early. Elementary School students can enrol in the Baath Pioneers and later at High School the Revolution Youth Union.
Upon enrolment at university, students are encouraged by their teachers to join the Baath party itself. Membership guarantees students an instant increase in their grade points, a crucial boost for many hoping to enter the best faculties.
“Baathist students receive five to ten grade points more than us so they can get into the better faculties,” said Mohammed, who did not join the ruling party.
Membership of the Students’ Union, while not compulsory, also brings many rewards.
“It is easier to get a room in campus if you’re a member of the Union. Otherwise you might have to rent a room in the city which costs a lot of money,” said Mohammed.
The Students’ Union is run by Ammar Saaty, a Baath party MP and reportedly a close friend of Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. No event can take place on campus without the permission of the Students’ Union.
In a one-party police state the campuses of Syria’s universities have long been a place for gathering intelligence on students as much as educating them.
“All new ideas come from the youth and therefore the university environment is even more controlled than the rest of Syria,” said Fadi, a 25-year-old student at Damascus University.
Human rights activists have documented dozens of cases of students arrested after speaking their mind on campus and being informed on to the security services by a fellow student.
The arrest and disappearance of his sister after questioning the president’s abilities during a conversation on Damascus University campus was one of the leading motivations for Syrian cyber activist Rami Nakhle to join the opposition.
“Students report each other to supervisors, and in return they are offered privileges such as being allowed to stay out until late or better dorm rooms,” said Khaled, a former student of the university.
A current student said that the Students’ Union is now offering rewards to those who catch people filming at protests on campus: The successful agent gets to keep the mobile phone of the person caught and is given money.
Today the Students’ Union members are joined by hundreds of plain clothes secret police patrolling the empty and eerily quiet campus of Damascus University, according to students there.
While concerned parents have kept their sons and daughters at home, other students have decided to boycott classes, while many are just too scared to turn up.
“Now there are more than 300 secret police patrolling inside the university alongside members of the Students’ Union,” said Ahmad, a student at Damascus University. “They swear at people and if anyone answers back they will be beaten.”
Coming from Daraa, where the uprising in Syria began, Ahmed said that he and his two brothers have been singled out for abuse at the university.
“They shout at us, ‘You’re a traitor!’ or ‘You’re a Salafi!’ or say that we are linked with foreign forces.”
Classes have been broken into by groups of thugs, said Ahmed, shouting “Long live Bashar!” and “There are traitors among us and we’ll kill you!”
In a chilling parallel to the crackdown on students in Iran during the Green Movement protests against the disputed re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian secret police were sent in to Damascus University to raid dormitories.
“I saw two large buses full of plain clothes security pull up to the statue of Hafez al-Assad last Thursday. The officers went to the dorms housing IT students and searched their rooms and arrested some of the students,” said Ahmad.
Not wanting to worry his parents back home, Ahmed said he had told them everything was fine at university. “We lied to our parents. They don’t know.”
On Wednesday this week, as they were leaving campus, Ahmed’s brother, Abdel Rahim, was told to show his ID to a member of security waiting at the gate. He was then driven away in a car. Ahmed was told his brother would be back in half an hour, but he is still missing.
“I went to the Students’ Union and asked why Abdul Rahim had been taken away and they told me he had been reported as having filmed a protest at the university on his mobile phone. But his phone is old and he never participated in a protest,” said Ahmed.
When he tried to call his brother’s mobile, Ahmed said a man’s voice answered, shouting: “We will fuck you and we will fuck Daraa!”
“I will not be quiet anymore. I am not scared anymore. I love my brother. Some students have been so badly beaten you cannot recognise their face,” said Ahmed.
“Now I think I am also going to be arrested because there is a report on me saying I participated in a protest at university. But that is impossible because that day I was home with my family in Daraa.”
A representative of the Students’ Union, contacted by a reporter, refused to comment on the testimony of students that they had been beaten by members of the Student Union.
Khaldoun, a 21-year-old member of the union and staunch supporter of the regime, said he had not participated in attacks on the protesters, but could understand why they had happened.
“Universities are for education not for demonstrations. Without the Baath party and president Assad none of us poor could get into university,” said Khaldoun.
“Those students who are protesting are studying in the government’s buildings: No one eats from a dish only to spit in it. Everyone against the country and Assad should be punished.”
But for many students, the fear barrier that kept politics off campus for so long has fallen in a matter of a week.
Last Sunday a group calling itself “The University Students of Syria” issued an eight-point statement denouncing “acts of force and humiliation inflicted upon university students inside campuses by security forces.”
“We want freedom and democracy for all of Syria. We want a stop to the killings in Daraa, Lattakia, Dumma and Homs,” said Ibrahim, one of the students who drafted the statement.
“We want freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, for political parties to be allowed and a free media. We are university students, but we are also Syrians: We feel and see what is going on in the country.”