First, They Came for the Journalists

One year after Oleg Kashin was brutally attacked in Moscow, the noted journalist looks back on the clownishly futile investigations -- and the climate of fear that threatens his profession.

MOSCOW – Not many people survive the kind of beating Oleg Kashin got a year ago. Around midnight, on Nov. 6, 2010, two men holding a bouquet of flowers met him outside his home in the center of Moscow. Fifty-six whacks with a crowbar savaged his left hand, broke his leg, cracked his skull at the temple, and shattered both his upper and lower jaw bones.

Almost exactly three years earlier, Yuri Chervochkin, an activist in the radical National Bolshevik Party, had been attacked in a small town not far from Moscow. His assailants got him with a baseball bat, and their first blow was enough: He choked on his own vomit and slipped into a coma. His mother spent the critical days after his beating trying to enlist reluctant doctors to help her son. They wouldn't, and he died three weeks later, just shy of his 23rd birthday.

Kashin, who wrote about Chervochkin's death at the time, was luckier. "I understand that the fact that I didn't die is all luck and good genes, because I had about a dozen chances to die," he told me, sitting in a cafe a few blocks from the courtyard where he nearly lost his life a year ago. "I could have easily lost consciousness and laid there for an hour, and that would've been it. Or if I got to the hospital just a little bit later."

But it wasn't just timing that saved him or even the extraordinary fact that Kashin stayed conscious long enough to call the janitor of his building, who sat Kashin on some plywood, shielded him from the rain with a tarp, and kept him awake until the ambulance arrived. It was also the fact that Kashin was not a marginal or radical figure. He was already a famous blogger and a well-known reporter for Russia's biggest daily, Kommersant, which is owned by Alisher Usmanov, a metals magnate with close ties to President Dmitry Medvedev. Usmanov flew a Russian neurosurgeon back from vacation to operate on Kashin. When Kashin was stabilized and in a medically induced coma, he was operated on by four big-name surgeons, simultaneously and for free.

Kashin's vast social network -- he was always the most gregarious of the Moscow journalists -- also worked in his favor. Within an hour of the beating, a friend living near Kashin blogged about what happened. Another friend (a journalist) read it and contacted her friend Natalia Timakova, a former Kommersant reporter and Medvedev's press secretary. Timakova roused Medvedev in the middle of the night, and the shocked president tweeted his promise that the perpetrators would be caught. In daylight, he instructed the prosecutor general to personally oversee the case. Medvedev saw Kashin a few months later on a visit to Israel, where Kashin was getting physical therapy, and according to Kashin, Medvedev promised to "tear off the heads" of those who had attacked him.

Yet despite all that, a year after the attack, not only have no heads been torn off, but the bodies to which they're attached have not been apprehended either. This was both predictable and utterly shocking. Given the volume of the outcry and the apparent sincerity and generosity of the official response, there was, one year ago, some faint reason to hope that this case might be solved. Kashin, after all, was a mainstream, well-connected figure. He was no Anna Politkovskaya, killed on Putin's birthday in 2006, whose work was so obviously dangerous (Kashin compared her to a suicide bomber). Nor was he like the other journalists and human rights activists whose work in the Caucasus has brought Caucasus-style revenge on their heads.

He was no Paul Klebnikov, gunned down in 2004, or Mikhail Beketov, assaulted and maimed in November 2008, who went against powerful financial interests. Kashin wrote about youth movements. Yet despite the seeming harmlessness of his beat, despite his luck that night, despite the big names and big money that immediately kicked into action, despite the wide shock and wide media coverage -- even state news lead with his beating the next day -- despite all these advantages that Politkovskaya and Beketov and Klebnikov and Chervochkin and dozens like them didn't have, in the year since the first photographers arrived to take pictures of the blood-spattered ground in Kashin's courtyard, Kashin's case has gone cold, exactly like theirs.


Almost since the moment he emerged from his coma, Kashin has been doing everything he can to help the investigation, giving countless hours of testimony and helping compile composite portraits of the suspects. The first visit from a detective came when Kashin couldn't talk yet -- his shattered jaws were still sewn shut. When he was mobile, in February, he was sent to a scientific institute that was part of the Interior Ministry for a procedure called "memory activation."

"It's a mansion with no sign," Kashin recalls. "And the people working there -- green nails, crazy makeup -- were real fortuneteller-types. The lady who was working with me is a lieutenant colonel and a Ph.D. in biology." The procedure was simple: Close your eyes, imagine you're in school, imagine you're writing on the blackboard, and then imagine you're erasing it with a rag, and while you're erasing, you fall into a trance. "I was kind of ironic about it all. But when they told me the procedure lasted an hour and a half, I was surprised because I didn't think it was more than 15 minutes," Kashin says. While he was under, he described the face of one of the attackers (he didn't have a chance to see the other one), which he had already done for the detective on the case. The two composite portraits weren't very different, Kashin says. While his memory was activated, he also recalled that he had been smoking on the way home. "OK, so I was smoking," he shrugs.

Thoroughness did not seem to be a problem, either. Kashin's friends were all extensively questioned: the friends he'd seen that night, his estranged wife, his broader circle of friends and fellow bloggers. Some described being grilled on what, exactly, a "blog" was. One was dragged into the police department so many times that she eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.

The whole year, whenever anyone asked, Kashin said he was satisfied with the progress of the investigation. He was in close contact with the lead detective on the case, Sergey Golkin, a general who worked only on VIP cases. "Usually people complain that their testimony isn't being recorded or that the investigators don't care," Kashin says. "Not at all the case here. Everything was recorded; everything was checked. I really had no complaints."

Yet the choice of Golkin should have been an ominous sign for Kashin. Golkin may have been a crack detective, but he was also the lead on two other high-profile cases: the murders of Novaya Gazeta reporter Politkovskaya and Klebnikov, who was the editor of Forbes's Russian edition. After sluggish progress, jury tampering, and the disappearances of key witnesses, Klebnikov's case was suspended in 2007. Politkovskaya's case, after a trial that looked a lot like a circus and resulted in an acquittal, has since been resuscitated and is dragging its way through the courts, five years after the murder. (During the Politkovskaya murder trial, one of her colleagues at the paper and a lawyer who had once represented Politkovskaya were gunned down in broad daylight, in the center of Moscow. A young neo-Nazi couple has been convicted of those murders, despite allegations of a confession made under duress.)

Golkin explained all this to Kashin. "He told me, 'The judges are dilettantes, so my evidence isn't enough for them,'" Kashin recalls. In court, Golkin claimed, he said, "'This is the murderer,' but it wasn't enough for the judge." That is, Golkin's sleuthing, even at full tilt, was insufficient if the courts weren't working. But of course, Golkin is still describing a system in which solving such crimes and pushing them toward a convincing conviction in court is not a pressing matter. And one doesn't become a general within such a system without understanding exactly what the system's priorities are and how much energy it's worth expending on carrying them out.

Kashin's case, to those following along with him, had some very plain and obvious clues. Kashin was beaten, it is absolutely clear, because of his journalistic work, which included his exceptionally acerbic blogging. The two young men who beat him were likely soccer hooligans, who, as Kashin himself was among the first to report, are often hired as hit men or used as enforcers by Kremlin youth groups. In the course of his investigation, Golkin apparently questioned high-ranking representatives from Molodaya Gvardiya, United Russia's youth wing, and from Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group. Both admitted to either having had Kashin under surveillance in the week before the attack or trying to find out his home address. They claimed this was because they wanted "to invite Oleg Vladimirovich Kashin to the home of Pskov Gov. Andrei Anatolyevich Turchak," the same governor whom Kashin had, in August, called "shitty Turchak" and who, in turn, publicly gave Kashin 24 hours to apologize. (Why "shitty"? "Meaning that he's the youngest governor, that he became governor only because he's the son of Putin's friend, and because he is the most insignificant governor," Kashin explains. "And because this is LiveJournal, you have a little more room when it comes to word choice.")

Kashin never apologized, despite attempts of people like the governor of Kirov, Nikita Belykh, to reconcile them. "I told each of them, 'Look, he's not a bad guy. Why fight? You should meet and talk it out,'" Belykh recalls. "And they said, yeah, they were supposed to meet." They never did. By September, Kashin claims, people were telling him Turchak was out for blood. "Anytime [Turchak] walked into an official meeting, people would snigger," Kashin says of the rumors he was hearing, explaining that because he and other popular bloggers had teased Turchak, their followers did, too, eventually hacking the governor's blog and changing his title to "The Shitty Governor of Pskov."

"He felt I was at fault for this, and he was, in many ways, justified in thinking that," Kashin says now. But last September, he became convinced that the threats were real and that they would get him inside his apartment building. Going up in his slow elevator, Kashin would press himself into the back wall when the doors opened, expecting an attack. Turchak was also involved with Molodaya Gvardiya, which openly threatened Kashin on its website, calling him a "journalist-traitor" and stamping "WILL BE PUNISHED" over his picture.

There is also the Nashi part of the story. Kashin, seen in Moscow journalist circles as something of an expert on youth groups, reported extensively and harshly on Nashi, which is a notoriously closed and guarded group: "Worse than a cult," Kashin says. The head of Nashi and of Russian youth politics more broadly, Vasily Yakemenko, is said to have dormant connections to Moscow street gangs and organized crime, specifically a group that once regularly beheaded its victims. "My sources were telling me that Yakemenko considers me an enemy -- I mean, an enemy, enemy, enemy, enemy," Kashin says. While Kashin lay in a coma, Yakemenko's possible role in the attack was openly debated in the Russian press. But 10 days after the beating, Putin summoned Yakemenko to his office to talk about physical education. In Russia, a signal like this is obvious, and the system responds accordingly, dragging its feet and letting an investigation gather dust. Going after someone in Putin's circle is just not worth it.


About a month ago, Golkin was suddenly taken off Kashin's case and replaced by another detective. The stated reason was that there were simply too many other high-profile cases to deal with in the department. Then Golkin sent Kashin a text message, suggesting that Kashin resubmit his testimony on Molodaya Gvardiya and Nashi -- "in case it gets misplaced." He added a winking emoticon.

"Yes, I'm a paranoiac, but the fact that they changed the detective two weeks after the United Russia congress, maybe it's connected," Kashin says. The promise to see the perpetrators brought to justice came from Medvedev, who saw his tenuous chance at remaining in power after 2012 snuffed at that congress. With Medvedev now a lame duck, Kashin thinks, that promise holds no water.

His seeming protector in the Kremlin hobbled, Kashin has become anxious. His hope, his belief that the investigation was going well -- that it was going at all -- has been steadily collapsing. Like the muckraker he is, he tracked down the new detective on the case, Nikolai Uschapovsky, through the reporters at Kommersant who cover crime. He called Uschapovsky and introduced himself, suggesting they meet and discuss the case. "He said, 'It doesn't make any sense to do that now; I haven't read your case yet, and it makes no sense to meet 'til I read it,'" Kashin paraphrases. "It's been two weeks. Seems he's going to be reading it for a long time -- there are a lot of volumes -- and so the case isn't going anywhere, as I understand it."

While Kashin lay in a coma, observers -- myself included -- expressed a sureness that, even if the hit men were found, the people who ordered the attack would never be punished, simply because they were too important and protected by Putin's, or another powerful person's, bulletproof loyalty. The number of journalists attacked or killed dwarfs the number of closed cases, and the figures, worn and oft cited to the point of cliché, are only swelling. Last week, Pavel Gusev, the editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets and the head of the communications division of the state's Public Chamber, announced that, in the first 10 months of this year, over 150 journalists had been threatened or attacked.  

Kashin has largely given up on finding his assailants, not to mention their employers. "I'm a realist; I understand the country we live in," he says. "If they catch a Spartak [soccer team] fan who guarded Seliger [the Nashi summer camp] five years in a row, then you don't have to arrest Yakemenko. That's enough for me. I get it. And that's what I hope for." He adds, with some hope, "And after all, not every criminal case attracts the attention of Medvedev. No one made him say anything."

Yet Kashin has something most other journalists or activists who have become victims of such attacks don't: He is alive; he is mobile; he is working; he is not in pain. But beyond those basics, the beating was a life-changing event. His temple, his upper jaw, and part of his leg are now made of titanium. He's missing half his left pinkie. He's missing teeth that can't be permanently implanted until his shattered jaw fully heals. (When he does get them, in a year, they will be paid for by Usmanov.) His bottom lip is partly paralyzed. "I can kiss," he says, shyly, "but the sensations aren't the same."

He still feels uncomfortable walking into his yard, and he has never gone back into the cigarette shop where he stopped before heading home that night last year. But Kashin says he has tried hard to normalize his life because any change, any fear is a concession to his attackers. This is why, when he was in Israel for rehab, he took a cab to Tel Aviv and bought the same Paul & Shark coat he was wearing when he met the two men with the bouquet. "When I read the notes from the investigation, they said I was wearing a leather coat," Kashin says. "But they were mistaken. It's a cloth coat, just like this one." He holds up a navy-blue canvas jacket. "It was just totally soaked with blood."

Because no one has been arrested, Kashin says he does not feel totally safe, and the two bodyguards he traveled with all spring and summer are now gone. What worries him most, though, is the psychological ramifications of being the martyr who managed to live. "Of course this story bothers me, and of course for a long time it will be the most important event of my life," he says, draining his coffee and lighting up a cigarette. "From the point of view of the media, it was a year ago; there have been lots of interesting events since. What I'm really afraid of is that another year will pass and the only person to remember and care about this event will be me, and to everyone else I will be the crazy guy who's obsessed with one old story."

So far, that hasn't happened. This Sunday, Nov. 6, the anniversary of the beating, Kashin and his colleagues stood in the cold in front of the Central Directorate of Internal Affairs, holding a sign demanding the crime be solved, much as they did one year ago. Last year, no one dared touch them. This year, two 17-year-old girls were arrested. Afterward, everyone -- except Kashin, who wanted to be alone -- went to a bar. It was as much a social gathering as it was a show of professional solidarity, which, to a journalist in Russia, are equally important and insulating against the sense of utter exposure.

But not everyone has even this most basic shelter. To mark the two-year anniversary of her son's death, Chervochkin's mother staged a similar protest. She was the only one who showed up and was quickly arrested.

Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images


Highway to Homs

A motorcycle ride across Syria, a country descending into chaos.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — "You are not American. You do not speak," Mahmoud warns me as we walk toward the souqs and hail a taxi. Bilal climbs into the front seat and directs the driver to Bab al-Sebaa, a district in the south of Homs, Syria, and the three of us drive off.

Minutes later, Mahmoud points out the window at a building raked with bullet holes. "Shiftu?" Did you see it? He asks.

We pull up to Bab al-Sebaa St., the district's main thoroughfare, and get out. Wide enough to have a median and long enough to have a protest, the street is deserted except for a gaggle of men straggling up the sidewalk at the far end of the road and a white van parked ahead on the right. On the left is a mosque, its green mosaic dome the only splash of color on this block of low gray concrete buildings. Behind me, at the top of the street just 40 meters away, rises a green hill with three olive tanks ranged in front, their cannons dead-level with the street. A half-dozen soldiers mill about, machine guns at the ready, their uniforms camouflaging them against tanks and hill. One soldier has taken off his bullet-proof vest, his T-shirt bright white in the morning sun.

Mahmoud quickly links his arm in mine, steering me around so that I have my back to the soldiers. "Khateer," dangerous, he whispers. The three of us start walking down the street, slowly. 

It all began on a pleasant motorcycle trip I took last month from Beirut, Lebanon, to Tartous, Syria, that ended up becoming a semi-surreptitious probe of Hama and Homs, the twin flashpoints of the Syrian uprising. As an English professor at the American University of Beirut, armed only with a rare visa obtained over the summer at the Syrian Consulate in Houston, Texas, and a modicum of Arabic, I managed to pass muster at a series of military checkpoints and gain entry into these two besieged cities.

Once inside, I was able to meet and talk with protesters and see first-hand evidence of President Bashar al-Assad's violent crackdown on the demonstrations that have been rocking the country since March. More than 3,000 people are believed to have been killed over the last seven months, most of them peaceful protesters, according to international rights groups and Syrian activists.

This is the story of what I saw.

Friday, Oct. 7. I head north from Beirut at dawn, riding the Suzuki Volty motorcycle that has taken me to Syria several times before. Escaping much of the traffic along the coastal highway and making a brief stop in Tripoli for breakfast, I arrive at the Areeda border crossing around 9 a.m. Exiting Lebanon is quick and easy this time because the checkpoint office is deserted inside, except for a lone officer sitting behind the counter.

Outside, a Lebanese border guard sitting on the low part of the wall dividing the through-lane asks me where I'm going.

"Tartous, maybe Latakia," I say, mentioning the two largest port cities along the Syrian coast.

"My advice: You go to Tartous, you eat fish, you go to hotel, you fuck for 24 hours. My advice. You go to Latakia tomorrow."

"Why not go to Latakia today?"

"It's Friday. Salaat, prayers. Maybe after prayers there is something." Protests have continued in Latakia even after the government led a military assault on the city in mid-August with gunboats and troops, leaving dozens dead and causing thousands to flee.

I thank him for his advice and coast on to the Syrian checkpoint just up the road. I hand over my passport to the border agents as they ask me where I'm going. I tell them Tartous. Why am I going? Tourism. How many days? Two. What hotel am I staying at? "I don't know; I'll have to see when I get there; someplace by the sea; someplace not expensive..."

"Funduq Shaheen," one of the agents says. One of his colleagues chimes in with his agreement.

I thank them for their hotel recommendation, and after a fair amount of paperwork take off for Tartous, arriving half an hour later.

Tartous is Assad country. A regime stronghold, it boasts billboards and posters and stenciled wall portraits of Bashar, his father Hafez, and his "martyred" brother Bassel (who died in 1994 in a car accident) beaming down from all directions, not to mention seaside waiters who are politely surly  this season toward American tourists. One van parked on the street even had its windows papered over with pictures of the sainted trio, making driving difficult. A vitrine in a wall at a T-junction displays an icon of Bashar in place of the Virgin.

Saturday, October 8. Dawn finds me riding the highway 10 kilometers southeast to Qalaat Yahmur, a 12th-century Crusader castle in a town little larger or better kempt than the citadel itself. Lost, I stop to ask for directions from a man sitting to mate with his wife at a small table outside his home. He sends his wife for the keys, invites me to partake of his herbal drink, then hops on his motorbike with a motion to follow him. He leads me all the way to the site, which consists of a stubby square tower surrounded by a well-preserved outer wall, as well as an aged keeper who shelters in what remains of the barracks.

Twenty kilometers later, I arrive in the town of Safita to visit its pale, windowless stone keep -- all that remains today of the White Castle of the Templars. I then continue east, past hills covered with olive trees and flowers, to Hosn Suleiman, a ruined temple situated within a wild mountain ravine. A heavy rain catches me stomping around the cella, and I clamber over the blocks of stone as quickly as their wet surfaces and sharp edges will allow, taking shelter in the lee of a colossal Ionic capital tilted tent-like against the rubble.

The rain slows to a drizzle. Exiting through the decorated lintel of the northern gateway, I am approached by a man and his veiled wife walking down the road. The man asks me what I'm doing. I tell him that I'm here for tourism, that I spent last night in Tartous, that this morning I visited Qalaat Yahmour, then Safita, that Hosn Suleiman is beautiful, that I want to go to Misyaf next, and that I plan to stay the night in Hama.

His eyes narrow and his smile turns to scorn at each clause of my reply. "Go to Misyaf and then return to Tartous for the night," he tells me.


"Msallaheen," he says. "There are bandits on the road to Hama." He points his forefinger at me, cocks his thumb and fires.

I thank him and trudge back up the muddied road to my bike. I no sooner turn the ignition than a man on a motorcycle pulls up behind me, calling me to stop. "What are you doing here?"

"Tourism," I tell him under a gray sky sprinkling still. "This morning I visited Qalaat Yahmour, then Safita, now Hosn Suleiman, and next I want to visit Misyaf. I love castles."

"Where are you from?"

"Ana min Amerka," I say, as I show him my passport.

"How long do you stay?"

"Two days. I spent last night in Tartous."

"Sorry, I am from the mukhabarat in Safita. I saw you in Safita and followed you here."

"Ah, yes," I say. The secret police. "I think I saw you on the road. There are problems in Syria, right?"

"Shway." A little.

"Now I want to go to Misyaf. Then I want to spend the night either in Tartous or in Hama. Misyaf is close to Hama, right?" I hold up the palm of my hand, touch a point, say Tartous, draw a diagonal up and to the right, stop and say Misyaf, continue the diagonal, stop and say Hama, so that Misyaf, on my hand, is closer to Hama than to Tartous. "Close, right?"


"There are no problems in Hama, right?"


Through light showers, I make my way along a narrow winding mountain pass to Misyaf, and then further east to Hama. I pass through a succession of tiny mountain villages where the men on the street stare at me suspiciously and hail me to pull over. I do not stop, except to buy gasoline from a shack in the countryside with crates of figs, almonds, and pomegranates in front. I have entered the fertile valley of the Orontes River.  Bounded by the mountains and forests of the coastal strip to the west and the parched expanse of desert to the east, the valley cradles Hama and Homs and the river that connects them along its northward flow.

An army squad on the outskirts of Hama forces me to stop and dismount. Two soldiers with bullet-proof vests and machine guns slung over their shoulders step forward. I hand over my passport. "American!" one of them calls out.

A third soldier emerges from the bunch, takes my passport from his crewmate and looms up to me.

"You are American," he states emphatically, searching through my passport for the Syrian visa. His command of English and his tall, muscular build (and maybe his longish black hair curling out from under his helmet) give him an extra assertiveness.

"Yes. And Mexican too. I was born in Mexico and grew up in the States."

"He's a journalist," his mate says.

"You are a journalist." Disdain mixes with the declarative.

"No. A professor at American University of Beirut."

"What do you teach?"

"English literature."

"What are you doing here?"


"Do you have a camera?"


"What do you have in there?" He points to my saddle bags.

"Two books, two shirts, whiskey. Baddak whiskey?" Want some whiskey? I joke.

The other soldiers commence discussing, in jocular tones, my whiskey.

"What do you want to do in Hama?"


"You have a friend in Hama."

"No I do not."

"Where did you stay last night?"


"Tartous! I am from Tartous. Do you like Tartous?"

"I love Tartous."

"Come with me."

He escorts me to the army barracks one block away, explaining that he is a student at the University of Damascus and wanting to know where in the United States I'm from. At the entrance to the barracks, he tells me to wait while he goes inside. In the meantime, a dozen soldiers crowd around me, having exchanged words with him. They are a young bunch, excited to meet a Texan, born in Mexico, who rode into Syria on a motorcycle, from Beirut. I elaborate:

"This morning I went to Qalaat Yahmour, Safita-"

"Safita!" one of the soldiers cries out. "I am from Safita. Do you like Safita?"

"I love Safita."

"I went to Qalaat Yahmour, Safita, Hosn Suleiman, Misyaf."

"Misyaf! I am from Misyaf. Do you like Misyaf?"

"I love Misyaf."

The soldier-escort returns and leads me through the gate into the front yard, where an older man is seated at a desk. He questions me, takes notes, and makes phone calls while the younger soldiers gather around and make salty jokes at my, and each other's, expense.

"How many women have you fucked?" one of them asks me.

"Thirty-five. One for each year of my life." They laugh, and so does the commanding officer, who persists with the formalities. After a quarter-hour of questions from the officer and quips from the crowd, I am free to go, newly equipped with a handwritten note that should gain me clearance at future checkpoints.

Many hands are shaken. A half-dozen soldiers accompany me. As we walk out to the street, I hear cries of "John! John!" I look up. From the rooftop soldiers in their undershirts whom I hadn't seen or talked to wave goodbye to me. "Maa salaama!" I cry out. "Maa salaama, John!"

On the way back, the escort-soldier leans in close and asks me, "What have you heard about Syria?"

"Fii mishkli." There are problems. "Fii mishkli?"

"Shway." A little. "But remember," he says, his dark eyes staring down into mine, "Assad -- for one Syria. One Syria -- for Assad. All Syria supports Assad." Then: "What do you think of Obama?"

"I don't think of Obama."

"We hate Obama. We hate the American government. They try to... to steal from Syria."

A white van full of women cloaked and veiled in black circles the roundabout into the city. He points and says, "Our women do not wear the hijab."

"Are you Christian?"

"No. We are Muslim. But our women do not wear the hijab." I surmise he is Alawite, the Shiite Muslim offshoot from which Assad, himself an Alawite, draws his strongest support.

As I mount my bike, an idea comes to me. "Tomorrow I return to Beirut," I say. On the palm of my hand, I point out Hama, then trace my finger in a southeasterly arc. "I can go Hama-Homs-Beirut, right?"

"Yes. But it's better if you go Hama-Tartous-Beirut," he says, mapping the two lines of the right angle on his own palm.


"It's better." It is clear why it is better not to go through Homs, a nerve center of anti-regime protests.

Feigning ignorance, I press him. "Why -- shabbiha?" I use the word derived from the Arabic word for ghost, which refers to the armed thugs that protesters have accused of being behind much of the violence.

"No! Not shabbiha . . . It's better."

I put on my helmet, kick the bike stand, and turn the key in the ignition. He holds out the palm of his hand to me and, smiling, says, "Give me five."

"I'll give you ten." The other soldiers coming forward, we exchange a round of tens, and a round of smiles, and a round of "Maa salaama's," and then I roar off, for Hama.

Two checkpoints and several semi-deserted streets (it is Saturday; it is also menacing) later, I arrive at the Apamee Cham Palace Hotel. Construction on this five-star hotel, situated on a slight elevation, started shortly after the infamous Hama Massacre of 1982, when President Hafez al-Assad crushed an Islamic fundamentalist revolt with great brutality. After a series of massacres, as many as 25,000 people perished and the city was left in ruins. Hama has since been rebuilt, with the hotel and garden towering and flowering over the houses and bodies of thousands.

There are only two other people staying at the hotel, the receptionist tells me, prompting me to bargain a mild price reduction. For dinner he recommends Aspasia Restaurant, just over the river in the Old Quarter, not far from the Ottoman-era Azem Palace and the 12-century al-Nuri Mosque. I go there and it is closed. A waiter at a nearby café, where water pipes with their snaking nozzles abound along with a crowd to smoke them, recommends Four Norias Restaurant downriver. I go there, it is closed. So is the neighboring riverside restaurant. Catching stares in this city where motorcycles, associated with armed rebels, are forbidden, I return downtown and enter a café. It is empty but for a large man sitting alone at a table, smoking, staring out the window at the river.

He looks over with dark-ringed eyes, surprised to see me. I tell him that all the restaurants are closed. Fii mishkli, there are problems, he says. Yes, I know. In Hama and Homs? Everywhere. Yes, I know. Where can I get some food? What would you like to eat? Beef. There is no beef. There is only poultry. Okay, poultry. There. He points to a joint across the street. I thank him and cross the large, bare expanse of the cafe.

I order a sandwich wrap and mill about outside. Across the street is a military post. Four armed soldiers stand idly by. Along a paved path a vendor touts plastic toys and garish trinkets, turned to advantage against a white cloth. An elderly woman covered head to toe in black walks slowly past. Young men gather on benches in the park, talking, smoking. It is dusk, and the river is still, grassy-banked, filthy and eternal, with sewage half-embedded in the surface unmoving. A boy sits fishing beside a water wheel, pole held limply, line straight down.

I hear a burst of staccato fire. I turn around -- it's coming from the southeast part of town, beyond those tall buildings. I look back at two young men huddled on a bench and gesture a gunshot. They nod with nervous smiles and get up to leave. The elderly woman hobble-hurries out of the park. I look across the street at the military post, which is now buzzing with a dozen soldiers, two on telephones. One of them eyes me.

I turn and admire the oleanders lining the sidewalk. A fruit juice stand is up ahead, and I am thirsty. I ask the seated vendor if there are problems. He shrugs his shoulders and says, "Maa baarif shee." I know nothing. He touches his chest, lifts both hands, and shoulders and then drops them.  "Maa baarif shee."

Gunfire starts up again, alternating a steady stream with isolated pops. The vendor is mantling up his wares, the benches are clearing, night is falling, and the boy with the pole 10 feet out over the river has not moved.

I ride back over the bridge to my hotel, but a glass building opposite the grounds catches my attention. I stop and rap on the locked door. Three uniformed waiters at a table look up at me, one of whom gets up and opens the door. It is the Apamee Cham Palace Hotel kitchen, he tells me, where the meals ordered for room service are prepared.

I join the three at their table, a glass of ice set before me. Offered whiskey, they smile. We are Muslim. I am not. Where are you from? Texas by way of Beirut. And you rode here all the way from Beirut? With stops along the way, yes. You are strong. No, I am not -- so did you hear the gunfire? Yes, we hear it every night. Will Assad stand or will he fall? Assad is still strong. What are the people protesting for? Democracy.

"Which do you prefer -- democracy or Assad?" I ask one of the waiters.

"I, democracy and Assad. He, democracy. He, democracy," he says, pointing at his friends.

Back at the hotel, I gather with the rest of the guests in the bar: a young couple huddled drinking water at a corner table, smiling and talking low. They could be on their honeymoon. I walk outside, where jasmine plants and globe lamps line the spacious and round-decked and well-swept and unlit balcony. The pool down below does not shimmer in the dark.

Sunday, Oct. 8. At dawn, I point my motorcycle south to Homs. Forty-five minutes and a few checkpoints later, and I am cutting along the city's main artery, past the Ottoman mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid and the well-manicured park in which it sits, past Martyrs Square, around and around the souqs to the only restaurant I can find open at 8 in the morning.

After breakfasting on goat-cheese sandwich wraps and freshly squeezed orange juice, I break the ice with two men in their mid-30s who are sitting at a plastic table just outside the rear entrance to the restaurant. Upon explaining that I'm a Texan professor from American University of Beirut, fresh from Hama on a motorcycle trip, they open up on the subject of politics.

"America good," Mahmoud says. "France good." "Russia-" at the evocation of the Syrian government's ally, he stamps on the concrete pavement with a grimace. "China-" the same disdainful gesture.

The two of them demonstrate every evening, they tell me. When the sun goes down, thousands fill the streets, calling for the fall of the regime. "And they kill us," Mahmoud says.

"Who kills you?"

"Hezbollah and Iran."

"How do you know?"

Mahmoud draws his hand down over his face to a point, suggesting the beard that many members of the Lebanese Shiite militant organization Hezbollah wear. "The way they speak," he adds. This is a common, if controversial, claim made by Syrian activists -- that the Assad regime has brought in mercenaries to help crush the protests, their southern Lebanese and Persian accents a giveaway.

Mahmoud looks up at me, an idea forming on his face. "Do you have a camera?"


"Will you stay here tonight?"

"No. I have to work in Beirut tomorrow."

Disappointed, he pauses for a moment. Then: "You are a professor at American University of Beirut. I want you to tell the world what is happening. Do you want to go to see the bullet holes?"

"Yes, I want to go to see the bullet holes."

He looks over at Bilal and asks him to come with us. Bilal, smoking, casts a wary glance down the street and does not answer. He is weighing the odds -- if they get caught showing a foreigner around sensitive sites, they will likely be imprisoned and tortured. "Will you come? Will you come?" Mahmoud asks. Bilal is smoking, looking away, smoking, thinking. But Mahmoud insists, repeating the question a half-dozen times. Finally, Bilal nods.

"You are not American. You do not speak," Mahmoud warns me as we hail a taxi. Five minutes later, we step out onto Bab al-Sebaa Street where there is no movement and no noise and nothing is open, and three tanks manned by six armed soldiers have their turreted guns pointed at our backs as we make our way, slowly, down the street.

"Shiftu?" Did you see it, Mahmoud asks, pointing at a shelled building, then another, then another, on both sides of the street.

"Shiftu?" pointing at a grapefruit-sized hole in one façade. "RPG."

"Shiftu?" pointing at the bullet-smashed windshield of a small white van, the lone vehicle on the street.

"Shiftu?" pointing at the hundreds of shells littering the embankment. He picks one up and puts it in my hand. It is a 7.62mm round fired from an AK-47. "Russian," he says. A few steps ahead, he picks up another casing and hands it to me. "Iranian." It is a soft-nosed bullet, the copper jacket beveled at the cusp and tapering to the tip. With a flick of the wrist, he jettisons one in disgust.

Bilal points down an alley and says, "Zainab al-Hosni lived here. You know Zainab al-Hosni?"

I've read about her. She's the 18-year-old Syrian woman widely reported last month to have been found decapitated and mutilated after her detention. But last month, a black-clad young woman who identified herself as Zainab al-Hosni turned up on Syrian state TV in an interview intended to discount what the channel said were foreign "media fabrications."

We turn right at the next alley. Two middle-aged men in sandals and tunics approach us. They exchange words in low voices with Mahmoud and Bilal. "You see?" Mahmoud turns to me and points at a three-story residential building. The window on the second storey is shot out and the gray concrete walls bear a profusion of bullet holes and some larger holes, six inches in diameter, made by rocket-propelled grenades. "The family was sleeping. There were two babies. RPG! RPG!" The men go back to speaking softly. Again Mahmoud turns to me and repeats, "They were sleeping. Two babies," and with large hands he shapes a vast explosion.

We turn left at the next alley, which looks much like the last one, which looks much like Bab al-Sebaa Street: shellacked walls, holes large and small, a scattering of brass, no signs of life.

Mahmoud describes the scene every evening when protesters fill the street. Dabbabet, tanks -- he imitates the stiff movement of the cannon gun. Grenades -- he pulls the pin of an imaginary grenade out with his teeth, tosses it. RPG -- he fires a rocket-propelled grenade from his shoulder. Machine gun -- "Tot-tot-tot-tot-tot!" He points to the rooftops -- "snipers."

"How many protesters?"

"Five thousand."

"Five thousand in Homs?"

"Five thousand in Bab al-Sebaa!" He ticks off the number of protesters in other districts in the city: "Three thousand in Alkhaldya, one thousand in Deir Balbah, one thousand in Albayada, four thousand in Bab Amro, two thousand in Al-Qosour..."

After some 300 meters, we hail a taxi back to the souqs. While walking the remaining blocks, Mahmoud nudges me. "Shiftu?" Did you see it? In the direction he is looking two policemen are leading a man away. He links his arm in mine and steers me back to the restaurant.

"Shiftu?" Mahmoud asks me, smoking a cigarette at the rear entrance while Bilal returns to work. "Go back to Beirut, tell al-Jazeera -- tell the people at American University of Beirut -- tell the world what you saw." He motions me inside. "People can hear us on the street. Mukhabarat, secret police."

We settle on a couch in a corner of the restaurant. Two customers are seated at a table a few meters away, huddled over chicken shawarmas and Sprites.

I tell him that the regime is claiming that the violence comes from the protesters, from militant Islamists, foreign intriguers, and army dissenters. He vigorously denies it, repeating, "Salmeeyah, salmeeyah." Peaceful, peaceful.

I ask him if he thinks the uprising will succeed. "Yes. All of Syria is with us -- the Sunnis, the Kurds, the Alawites..."

"The Alawites?"

"Shway, a few Alawites support Assad. The rest are with the revolution. All of Syria is with us."

"Not Tartous."

"Not Tartous. But Damascus, Homs, Hama, Qameshli, Idleb, Deraa, Deir ez-Zur, Maarat al-Numan..." he says, ticking off cities across country.


"Yes. Rukn al-Deen, Qaboon, Harasta, Zabadani, Moaddamiyeh, Qadam..." he says, naming suburbs and districts in the capital city.

"What about the Christians?" Christians, who comprise some 10 percent of Syria's population, tend to support the regime out of fear of what they consider the alternative -- a Sunni-dominated government implementing Islamic sharia law at the expense of minority rights. This fear has been fueled by reports on Syrian state television that Islamic militants have carried out revenge killings against minorities.

"Well, in Aleppo, the problem is money..." Mahmoud says, suggesting that the business community in Aleppo, like that in Damascus, sees its interests tied to the stability of the regime. So long as these interests remain secure, neither Damascus nor Aleppo will witness the kind of mass demonstrations that occur daily in Hama and Homs, the logic goes.

Mahmoud gets up to greet a young man and introduces him to me. It is his brother, Omar. Omar is a student at the University of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. He rides up to Homs every weekend to join the protests. Omar's face shines with pride as his brother tells me this.

Mahmoud and I resume our talk on the couch. I tell him that in Hama there is no beef.

"In Homs there is no beef, no milk, no electricity, no water. No milk for babies!"

"No electricity?"

"It goes off at four in the afternoon. They don't want people to see what is happening."

"And the water is off?"

"Shway. We get little water," he says, holding his thumb and forefinger together. "Just enough to drink and to wash ourselves." He cups his hand and splashes imaginary water under his arms. "No shower! Just wash and drink. We are suffering."

I ask Mahmoud about his family. They are Sunni Muslim. His father is deceased, and his mother stays at home while he and Omar protest.

"I have another brother, 15 years old, he is in prison," he tells me. "I don't even know if he is alive or dead. He was arrested three months ago while protesting. I don't even know if he is alive or dead!"

"Are you afraid?"

"No." He puffs out his chest, looks and points upward. "I fear only God."

It is time for me to go. I say goodbye to Mahmoud and Bilal. "Allah maakun," God be with you. "Allah maak," they reply. On my way out the door, Omar grabs me and, smiling, whispers a chant in my ear, "Allah, Suriyya, hurriyya w bas!" God, Syria, freedom and nothing more!

Back at the entrance to the city, a young soldier stops me. I give him the officer's note. He reads it and hands it back to me. "Allah maak," he tells me and walks away. "Allah maak," I reply.

I cross the border at Dabbousiyyeh, arriving in Beirut toward sunset. Mahmoud, Bilal and Omar, and thousands like them, must be filling the streets in Hama and Homs and cities all across Syria now.

Friday, Nov. 4.  The streets continue to fill; blood continues to spill.

Hopes rose on Nov. 2 for an easing of the crisis, as Syria agreed to an Arab League-backed deal to end the violence and unrest. The measures included withdrawing the military from cities and residential areas, releasing all political prisoners and allowing the Arab League and foreign media to monitor and report on the situation. But according to rights groups in and out of Syria, some two dozen civilians have been killed have been killed across the country since the deal was struck, raising doubts about the government's willingness to end the eight-month crackdown.

The violence has not all been one-way, either. Fifteen members of the Syrian security forces and pro-government gunmen have reportedly been killed been killed by army defectors in the same time period.

A sense of continuing stalemate and continuing bloodshed prevailed over all the encounters on my Syrian trip. From the seaside waiters' dislike for Americans in Tartous to the suspicion of outsiders and fear of bandits among the mountain village folk, from the massive deployment of security personnel in and around the major protest centers to the increasing desperation of local activists and apolitical locals alike, everywhere the mood was one of waiting for an end to the crisis and knowing it will not come soon.

Everyone seemed resigned to a low-level and long-term war of attrition. Those confident of Assad's political survival perceived, even if they did not confess it, that his standing was irreparably damaged.  Those positive his days were numbered were unwilling to count.

The security of anyone's declarations was in direct proportion to the insecurity of his convictions. All sides are certain they are in the endgame, and equally certain that the end will be long in coming.