John Pedro Schwartz writes for Foreign Policy magazine about a motorcycle journey across Syria:
"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.