'Assad, wake up! We're with Homs to the death!'

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson follows activists in Damascus as they engage in a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities to hold furtive protests

Shoulders hunched and their gaze fixed ahead as they hurry through the winding streets, the men of this western Damascus suburb move quickly and quietly as they head to Friday prayers.

Whatever revolutionary fervour is in their hearts, they hide it well. Slowly, the streets clear as women and children hurry inside. Shutters are pulled down on the shops. The silence is broken only by the chants of the imam.

The first sign that this is one of the dozens of furtive Damascus protests against the dictatorial rule of President Bashar al-Assad comes when the prayers finish, and the cries of "Allahu Akbar" – "God is the greatest" – ring out from the exit of the Farouk Mosque.

Moments later, the voices get louder and a handful of young men, their faces covered with red-and-white keffiyeh scarves, run ecstatically into the small square and fling hundreds of white and pink flyers high in the air. They fall like confetti on the street, telling all who pick them up: "Assad wake up, your time is up".

At mosques across Damascus yesterday, thousands of people gathered for similar rallies. Their numbers were swelled by outrage at the events of the past week, as President Assad's forces unleashed a barrage of rockets and mortars on opposition neighbourhoods in the city of Homs.

"Homs, we are with you to the death!" the protesters chant. The crowd swells to about 300 people, and the shouting men unfurl the old Syrian flag, now adopted by the rebel movement.

These protests are painstakingly arranged each week, often at the last minute in a complicated game of cat and mouse to evade the police and the feared Shabiha militia. Security checkpoints spring up across the capital every Friday, a futile attempt to stop the rising dissent against a family which has ruled Syria for 41 years.

But it is never long before the security forces sniff out the dissenters. After only eight minutes of chanting, a shout goes out and the protesters scatter. A hard core of young men converge at the next junction, pushing over a rubbish bin to block the road and picking up rocks, ready for a fight.

Then the first burst of gunfire rings out. It is not clear how close it is, and there is another protest at the mosque in the next neighbourhood. But it is enough to scatter the men again, and they melt away into the alleyways.

They are just in time: three taxis stuffed full of armed men barrel down the narrow road. In the open boot of one car sit two men in army fatigues, Kalashnikovs on their laps. Volleys of gunfire crackle in the air, and two city buses packed with dozens of soldiers arrive. The third bus contains fierce-looking young men. They are not in uniform, but one hangs out of the door, a heavy wooden stick at the ready.

By early evening yesterday, up to 50 people were reported injured in clashes with the security forces around the Farouk Mosque and the nearby Mustafa Mosque. Activists say this is a scene played out every Friday across the capital.

There could never be a Tahrir Square in Damascus, they say, referring to the central Cairo square where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered and toppled their hated dictator, Hosni Mubarak. The Syrian army would simply mow them down.

Instead, people try and make their voices heard whenever they can. As midnight comes in many suburbs, men lean out of their windows and shout "Allahu Akbar" into the darkness, a provocative cry to a secularist regime.

Their cries are often answered by the ringing of gunfire. Opposition activists meet in secret to devise new ways to spread their message. Once, they broke into a bus depot at night and stacked leaflets on the top of the vehicles. When the buses pulled out in the morning, the leaflets rained down on the public.

For many people who have grown up terrified of uttering even the name of President Assad or his father, Hafez, just to read a flier calling for his downfall gives astonishing release. One young man explains the euphoria of his first protest, where he heard people vocalising what he had been afraid to say for decades. "I wanted someone to punch me in the face to show me that it was real," he tells The Independent. Of course, there are many who still support the government, especially in Damascus and the second city of Aleppo, where the middle class and business community are desperate for the stability the Assad family was once able to provide. Many members of the President's Allawite religious community also remain loyal.

For the activists, they do not yet know how their "revolution" will end. They know that Egypt has seen bloody outbursts of communal violence, and Libya is grappling to restore law and order.

"People say, 'The one you know is better than the one you don't know'," observes a middle-aged professional. "I think the opposite: you have to try, knowing very well that it might turn out badly, but at least you have tried."

Suggested Topics
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little