Inside Syria: Northern rebels press for freedom

Free Syrian Army fighters say the regime is a danger to them "24 hours a day"

Abu Hoseifah was blindfolded and his hands were tied behind his back. He was hoisted up and left to hang on his cell wall like a painting.

He says they poured boiling water over him and he was beaten; on his face, arms, legs and buttocks.

They attached cables to his body, strapped him to a chair and sent electricity surging through his body.

His bloodshot eyes are testament to 80 days of torture and sleep deprivation.

The pink scars from cigarette burns are still bright on his hands and the back of his neck.

Abu Hoseifah's "crime" was to attend an anti-government demonstration. He was arrested and hauled off to the cells of Military Intelligence in Damascus where he says he was abused every day until he was forced to confess to his "crimes against the state".

Common story

He has just returned home to his family, and safety, and yet he has no plans to keep quiet.

"I will demonstrate again and again; all the torture I have suffered has given me more courage, I will do whatever I can because of the way I was treated," he says.

The mother of 15-year-old Mohammed Shawi who was shot by a government sniper / Idlib 22 Feb  2012 The mother of 15-year-old Mohammed Shawi who was shot by a government sniper

His story is as horrifying as it is common and we have heard it many times over the past few days.

But that is not why Syrians decided to stand up against their government in the first place; not because of the beatings, the arbitrary arrests or state-sanctioned violence, not even because of the thousands of deaths documented by human rights organisations in the past year of protests.

Those things have certainly spurred the rebellion that has gripped the country but it is the raw hunger for two things that has pushed Syria to the precipice of civil war; freedom and justice.

Over the past week we have moved from town to village in this part of northern Syria.

For the same reason that most people do not want to give their real names when you speak to them, so it is prudent not to be too specific about where we have been.

Start Quote

Abu Bakr, rebel fighter

I want freedom in all its concepts, whatever this word means I want it”

End Quote Abu Bakr Rebel fighter

In what looks like a fight to the death the usual protection that accompanies foreign journalists no longer applies in Syria.

We have moved from group to group, car to car and been in countless meetings, fed to the gills and watered with hot sweet tea and thick black coffee.

In each of these smoke-filled encounters the sentiment has been the same; that people want freedom and justice.

Abu Bakr is a graduate in English literature who has swapped his pen for a Kalashnikov rifle but he is not happy with his choice.

"We want people to carry a pen and a notebook, to write, but the people here don't study, they take a gun and join Free Syrian Army," Abu Bakr says.

He imagines a country free from oppression.

"I want freedom in all its concepts, whatever this word means I want it."

He wants social, political and economic liberty. The deadening bond of silence has been broken and having watched their fellow Arabs break free, many Syrians want the same thing.

Fragile balance

But not every Syrian agrees and some fear a future controlled by men like Abu Bakr.

Syria is a fragile balance of religions, sects and ethnicities and there is concern that these differences could become divisions and that there is a secret Sunni agenda to turn the country into a hardline Islamic state.

One man, who did not want to be identified, told me he wanted to see an Islamic government.

Syrian protesters Despite the risks, crowds of civilians come out to protest in the towns

Abu Bakr interrupted to explain that this simply meant that he wanted a fair system, not that he wanted Sharia, or religious law.

A rebel commander we met insisted that this was not a sectarian fight, that it was a struggle between "the people and Bashar al-Assad" and whether Syrians worshipped in a mosque or a church they should be united.

But the fight they have taken on is daunting. It is impossible to exaggerate the dangers people here face. Every day brings news of government offensives, troop movements and death.

Syrians have taken on a Goliath without the means to win. They have achieved much through courage, tenacity and small arms but they may have reached the limit of what they can achieve on their own.

The simple question everyone asks is "when will the world help?"

That challenge falls to leaders meeting in Tunisia for a Friends of Syria conference.

About the only thing that is guaranteed is that without help many more people will be detained and tortured and men, women and children will be killed in Syria.

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