In Syria, two college students swept up by protest passion

The pair of college friends can’t suppress a conspiratorial giggle when they talk about the passion that’s consuming them.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” says Nawal, as her close friend and fellow schemer, Lina, listens closely in a cafe here in the Syrian capital. “It’s like you’ve broken all the injustice and fear.”

Some college students gate-crash parties. These two young women ditch classes and roam the streets of Damascus and its suburbs, searching for protests calling for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We’ll be at the university and we get a call from friends who say there is a protest, and we just go,” says Nawal, 20, mindful to lower her voice each time the waiter approaches. “Then we come back for class as if nothing has happened.”

They both start giggling again, relishing their double lives, the sense that they’re pulling one over on the world.

They talk about going to demonstrations as if they were hatching teenage mischief. But it’s a serious business, deadly serious: The threat of being shot or arrested is ever present, and their school, Damascus University, is thick with regime informers and heavies, central-casting tough guys with leather jackets and cigarettes dangling from their mouths.

“We never tell anyone when we go to protests,” says Lina, 22.

The two women, who asked that they be identified by nicknames for their safety, say they had no interest in politics before an uprising that has left more than 8,000 opposition fighters and civilians dead. Both come from traditional, middle-class Sunni Muslim families near Damascus.

The protests have become somewhat of an obsession, a delirious declaration of liberty in a nation where dissident views have long been throttled.

“You’ve broken all the barriers,” Nawal says. “Hopefully, your voice will be heard.”

Unlike some protesters, Nawal says she never wears anything to conceal her face at marches. “A cover hinders me,” she says. “My voice wouldn’t come out. I want to go out and not be scared.”

The Syrian uprising erupted a year ago with scrawled graffiti and impromptu street rallies. Today, however, demonstrations are as well choreographed as any Broadway musical.

Facebook and other social media platforms help spread the word, but an old-fashioned networking site — the mosque — plays a pivotal role as the one place where large numbers of people can gather more or less unhindered.

Protest volunteers prepare thematic banners in English and Arabic, with an eye to YouTube and international news coverage.

Along planned protest routes, organizers pre-position various teams: first aid, videographers, lookouts. These days, with civil disobedience having morphed into insurrection, armed rebels routinely provide protection.

But Nawal and Lina say they have nothing to do with setting up protests. They don’t speak out on the podium or hoist banners. They just like being there, living the moment.

“You’re raising your voice in the street saying, ‘We’re not scared of you, Bashar,’” says Nawal, clearly moved at the spirit of collective defiance.

They are especially drawn to “flash” or “flying” demonstrations, clandestinely organized rallies often held in areas where Assad retains considerable support. To avoid tipping off authorities, the exact locations of flash rallies are kept secret until shortly before it is time to hit the streets.

Flash demos may last only a few minutes, long enough to chant anti-regime slogans, unfurl a few banners and allow participants time to beat an exit, hopefully before security forces arrive.

Lina remembers one of her first flash demonstrations. A friend had called to tell her about the rally, but warned her against attending. Plainclothes militiamen known as shabiha (derived from the Arabic word for “ghosts” ) were said to be roaming the area.

“There were shabiha cars everywhere, these big black vans,” Lina recalls. “The shabiha, they have a special look. When you lay your eyes on him, you know it’s one of them.”

Nawal, listening to her friend’s account, rolls her eyes and adds: “They have beards, wear gold watches, and are usually stocky. They see themselves as important.”

Soon after she arrived at the flash rally, Lina says, gunfire rang out and protesters began running into adjacent alleys.

“Then the arrests started and the security vehicles began moving, taking in people on the road,” Lina says. Nawal interrupts, “They take anyone, even if you didn’t participate.”

In such situations, Lina and Nawal resort to charm and innocence. Their neat appearance is the antithesis of the scruffy look that attracts the attention of security cops: The two are inevitably nicely turned out, with boots, slacks, well-cut jackets and trendy shoulder bags, appearing more suited for a Friday night out than a day at the barricades.

They tell authorities who stop them that they are respectable passersby who wandered inadvertently into the maelstrom. At checkpoints, they explain they are headed to the house of a sister or a friend. The tale works every time.

It wasn’t until November, after more than six months of protests had shaken Syria, that the two finally summoned the courage to attend a demonstration. They had wanted to participate, but it was difficult, especially for women, a distinct minority at street rallies, though female participation appears to be growing. Worried families discouraged them.

Once resolved to take part, they faced a logistical challenge: How to find the demonstrations? After getting to know the “right people,” their names got around. Coded calls with protest times and venues began coming in. Certain Facebook sites also provided the needed intel.

Despite attempts to keep their pursuit confidential, the two became known on campus as opposition activists. And that could be very dangerous for them.

“The university has become a branch for the mukhabarat,” says Lina, referring to the much-feared intelligence service. “There are a lot of tensions.”

A year into the rebellion, the two women say they are deeply worried about the prospect of a full-blown war dividing Syria’s complex array of religious and ethnic groups. Before the uprising, they say, they didn’t even know what sectarianism was. Now, they, like many Syrians, are caught up in discussions of sect and loyalties.

Neither Nawal nor Lina appears to be afraid of much. But they do dread the prospect of arrest, fearing torture and rape in detention. With defiance, each insists she would rather be “martyred.”

Although the two women sometimes appear caught up in the heady protest mind-set, they are reflective when talking about what they hope to achieve. For too long, they say, Syrians have sacrificed individual liberty and self-respect in the name of security.

Nawal says, “We used to live in safety, but had no dignity.”

Sandels is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.