Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Tuesday, 21 June 2011 12:47 UK

In hiding with Syrian protesters on the run in Damascus

Sue Lloyd-Roberts posed as a tourist to make this report in secret

Sue Lloyd-Roberts
BBC Newsnight, Damascus

"You must keep the door locked and the blinds down at all times," I was told as they led me into a bare, one-roomed apartment in a Damascus suburb.

"You must stay here until we send a message for you to come to us," they said, and left me.

I commented that his reforms would not go far enough to satisfy the people. They did not like it. They came to my house, smashed my laptop and took me to prison. After they tortured me, they put me in solitary
Amer, Syrian TV journalist

Hungry, I opened the fridge. There was nothing in it. "Welcome to the Syrian Revolution", I told myself and settled down on the lumpy mattress to try to sleep.

I soon found I was not alone in my predicament. During the next few days I was transported between the sprawling suburbs of the Syrian capital to meet activists and opposition politicians, and discovered that most of them are in hiding.

Mustafa, a 40-year-old "revolutionary advocate", as he calls himself, is living in similar conditions to mine, in a borrowed room well away from his home address where the country's ubiquitous security police, the Mukhabarat, would be looking for him.

He too has a mattress on the floor, but also a table for his laptop from where he sends the latest news of atrocities, how many had been killed at the Friday protests, how many arrested and so on, to human rights organisations outside the country.

Identity hidden

He also does not eat but, like everyone I met in Syria, chain smokes. With his hands shaking as he lights the next cigarette from the stub of the last, he says, "Welcome to the land of neurotics!"

Syrian anti-government protest
Friday prayers have been the focus of protests each week

When I started to interview him, he turned his back to the camera. "I can't show my face", he explained.

What do you political activists want for Syria, I asked? "I want to be able to talk to you, and to the world without hiding like this. We want to be able to criticise our government. We want freedom of speech, we want democracy, we want the things that you regard as normal," he said.

Amer, a 26-year-old TV journalist, has struck lucky. He has been loaned an apartment by a friend.

He reminisces on how different it was for him just a few weeks ago.

"I was working for Al Arabiya TV and reporting on the president's first address to the nation after the uprising began. I commented that his reforms would not go far enough to satisfy the people.

"They did not like it. They came to my house, smashed my laptop and took me to prison. After they tortured me, they put me in solitary. It was so small, I was made to stand, I couldn't sit down. They beat me with electric batons. They spat at me and told me I was a stupid journalist who was ruining my career."

'Islamist scare-mongering'

Does he fear that they might be exchanging President Bashar al-Assad's regime for a more rigidly Islamic one? Amer pours scorn on the idea:

Riad Seif
Syria should belong to the Syrians not to the Assad family
Riad Seif, Syrian opposition politician

"This is deliberate scaremongering, whipped up by the government. They want to use Islam as the big bogeyman. It is nonsense. We just want freedom, the rule of law, we want to get rid of a dictatorship and the security forces who rule our lives."

Twenty-six-year-old mother of small children, Aliya, led women out on to the streets in her town. She agrees: "At first, it was only we liberals who took to the streets. Now when I join the protests, I am standing alongside conservative women, women in headscarves.

"My daughter asks me, 'why do I have to say I love the president at school, Mummy, while you are shouting against him?'

"I don't want my daughter to grow up like I did - having always to say something in one place and something else in another. I want her to be free. I want her to say what she wants, where she wants, when she wants."

Hopes dashed

It is a Syrian protestor's "badge of honour" to have been imprisoned. Sixty-five-year-old opposition politician and former MP, Riad Seif, is no stranger to incarceration. He started campaigning for reform back in the 1990s.

When the current president, Bashar al-Assad, came to power after the death of his father, President Hafiz al-Assad, in 2000, he believed, like many others, that the transition of power to a young, Western-educated doctor would herald a Damascus Spring:

President Bashar al-Assad
Many had been hoped President Assad would be more Western leaning

"Bashar Assad told me that he wanted to be my friend and asked me to help him with reform and so I started a dialogue. We called ourselves the Syrian National Council. We used to meet, one hundred of us, here in my home."

I looked around at his comfortable, but modest apartment - Mr Seif is one of the few involved in the current protest who has been allowed to stay in his own home - and found it hard to imagine so many people there. But, they had urgent business at hand.

"We put together a plan to introduce political reform and an end to corruption. But Bashar did not like it. In 2001, I was put in jail for five years. In 2006, I was jailed again for two and a half years for calling for democracy."

Clearly, I was lucky to catch this grand old man of the Syrian opposition between stints in jail. He remains forthright. "Syria should belong to the Syrians", he says, "not to the Assad family".

Unable to leave

Although ill with prostate cancer, Mr Seif goes to the Friday protest outside his mosque every Friday from where he was recently arrested and imprisoned again:

You know, you're not considered a real Syrian unless you've been in prison
Syrian anti-government protester

"They beat me until I was covered in blood and put me in prison for 10 days. But it was a really interesting experience for me. Unlike the earlier times, there were hundreds of us there and we could all exchange stories and opinions about the current situation."

Seif's wife comes in at this point saying, "They're here, two car loads of them".

Looking out of the window we see two black cars with occupants wearing the trademark sunglasses of the Mukhabarat.

They did not enter, but I could not leave, and, to my delight, I was invited to lunch with Seif and his wife - it was my first meal since arriving in Damascus five days earlier.

Seif proved a lively raconteur but the illness and medication for his cancer make him tire easily. "I only hope that I see change here in Syria before I die", he told me as I eventually left.

On the run

That night I had to leave my apartment. But foreign journalists are forbidden in Syria and no-one wanted to take me in.

Syria map

My contacts took me from building to building, begging for a mattress, a sofa, anything.

Finally, someone offered me their sofa.

It would be quite wrong to think of the current protest and brutal reprisals as something new in Syria. Many of the young protesters I met, those who are prepared to join the street in protest explained that prison is in their blood.

All agreed that they would gladly risk prison again, if it would help bring freedom and democracy to the country.

Watch Sue Lloyd-Roberts' full report from inside Syria on Newsnight on Tuesday 21 June 2011 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

Paul Conroy Homs 'another Srebrenica'
Journalist Paul Conroy on Homs bombardment and his escape

Hip replacement X-ray Hip implants concerns
Problems with metal-on-metal hip implants 'ignored'

General Dhao Gaddafi's last days
General Mansour Dhao on last days in Sirte and bid to flee

Pit bull terrier Kennel costs
3.7m police bill for kennelling of suspected dangerous dogs

Egyptian women Blighted lives
Female genital mutilation still rife in Egypt despite ban

Italian Senator Lucio Malan Italian senator: 'We were not informed of Nigeria rescue bid'

For sale signs Why are mortgage rates rising and will more lenders follow?

Newsnight's Tim Whelwell on the tail of an 'election bus' in Russia Evidence of voters 'bussed in' to boost Russian vote

David Miliband David Miliband on Vladimir Putin's 'cold' political style

The streets of Sirte Mark Urban on the 'bitter ironies' of Sirte destruction


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific