The Syrian schoolboys who sparked a revolution
On March 20 last year, an intelligence officer in Damascus rounded up a group of teenagers from Daraa and told them: "You disrespected the president, but he has decided to pardon you." The boys were surprised. They had been held by the authorities for more than a month and Bashir Abazid, who was just 15 at the time, almost refused to believe what he was hearing, because every time the boys had been told they were being released, they had been transferred to yet another intelligence branch.
Remarkably, the teenagers were sent back to Daraa later that same day. "We were terrified for the entire way home," Bashir recalls. As they approached the city and headed towards the Baath party headquarters, they witnessed a scene they only knew from television: they saw crowds of people lining the streets.
"I thought they had prepared the square for our execution," he says. "Our eyes filled with tears. When we got to the square, the officers ordered us to draw the curtains on the bus. That made us even more scared. The news spread to the people that we were inside. They stormed the bus. We opened the shaded windows and I saw my brothers and uncles. My mother was crying. I jumped out of the window."
Bashir's brother embraced him and cried: "You see all these people? They are here for you."
The southern Syrian city of Daraa has been under siege by Bashar Al Assad's forces since April last year. Tanks encircle the area and strict curfews are enforced. Snipers occupy most of the tall buildings and the city's main roads are cut off by checkpoints. Even so, protests remain a part of the daily routine, underlining Daraa's dedication to the revolution it ignited a year ago.
When the uprisings started to spread across Tunisia and Egypt, a few underground activists began discussing how to bring the Arab Spring to Syria. Some of the older intellectuals believed it was too soon to contemplate an uprising on home soil. The younger men argued this was their only chance to take advantage of the events as they were unfolding in the region.
One of those activists, Mohammed Masalmeh, a construction worker in Daraa, agreed that this moment must be seized. He had already been detained by the Mezzeh Air Force in Damascus for four months before the revolution began. He knew after four decades of living under an oppressive regime that change needed to come to Syria.
While the activists discussed hypotheticals, Bashir and his young school friends seized the day. On February 16, 2011, they painted the popular revolutionary chants they had seen on satellite television - "The people want to topple the regime"; "Your turn is coming, Doctor"; "Leave" - on their school walls. In a finishing touch of both courage and naïveté, they signed each slogan with their names: "With our regards, Bashir" or "Issa," or "Nayef Abazid."
Masalmeh tells me this from the Arbeen neighbourhood in Daraa, which is directly across from the Arbeen School, where the walls are still covered with black blotches concealing the words that sparked the revolution. A security checkpoint sits just two hundred metres away. Like most Syrians living through the uprising, he is surrounded by the marks and stains of both inspiration and repression.
Nayef, a Year 8 student, was arrested by security forces the day after. After being tortured, he confessed and reluctantly surrendered the names of his co-conspirators. With this information in hand, the police went from home to home, threatening their parents to turn in their sons. The boys would give themselves up a few days later, after being assured that no harm would come to them. And then they disappeared.
Their parents tried in vain to find out what had happened to their sons. On February 26, some of the fathers, who hailed from Daraa's prominent tribal families, begged the Political Intelligence branch to release their children. According to their parents, Atef Najeeb, the branch chief and a cousin of Bashar Al Assad, met with them and told the men to forget their children; to go and make new ones, before adding insult to injury with these chilling words: "If you can't make your own children, send us your wives, and we'll make them for you." The men returned home, defeated, humiliated and simmering with rage.
Soon afterwards, Khaled Masalmeh, an attorney and human rights activist, told the underground movement in Daraa that a protest was being planned in Damascus by an opposition group on March 15. The demonstration would call for the release of all political prisoners. The men decided to protest in solidarity in front of the Saraya courthouse.
Around 30 activists arrived at Daraa's courthouse on March 15 and saw Khaled standing in front of the building. They pretended they were there separately, as security forces swarmed between them waiting for any suspicious movement to begin. Mohammed Masalmeh remembers the incident very well: "We wanted to say 'Freedom' but we couldn't. Khaled couldn't say a word. But the security forces found out who we all were."
That night they all met up in a secluded home that belonged to Ali Masalmeh Abu Hussein, a leading member of the opposition. Mohammed remembers one of their number saying, "We can't protest on a weekday." Some of them opposed the suggestion, reasoning that holding a protest during the week, when the streets were crowded, would ensure others would join in. The activist replied, "And what if they don't? The security forces will catch us all."
They decided to try again on Friday, spreading the word that the protest would begin at the Omari Mosque, but secretly agreeing that a core of 30 men would emerge from Al-Hamzeh wa Al-Abbas Mosque which was nearby. Both mosques were located in the neighbourhood where the most prominent tribal families of Daraa lived. The logic was that if something happened to any of them, they would quickly be surrounded by cousins and relatives who would defend them against the security forces. That Friday, Al-Hamzeh wa Al-Abbas Mosque's imam told the young men that no one would be allowed to lead a protest from his mosque. They assured him they wouldn't. Masalmeh says: "The men stood up before the end of the prayer. They were not focused on the prayer at all that day. The older fathers stood a row behind, waiting to clutch their sons and hoping to hold them back before they left."
Ali Masalmeh moved towards the mosque's door and cried: "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, freedom, dignity." His cousins quickly joined in. Then a doctor and an engineer joined and the rest followed - that was Daraa's first chant. Ali Masalmeh, whose voice broke Daraa's silence, would be assassinated on February 23, 2012 during a raid on his home. The group walked towards the Omari Mosque and were joined by 25 more men. Security was heavy inside as someone had already tipped them off as to the activists' plans. But because everyone was leaving the mosque at the same time, they thought the crowd of thousands were all part of the protest.
The police commissioner came to negotiate: "What do you want?" They chanted: "We want our children who are in the prisons." He responded: "We are going to release them." They responded: "Liars, liars." Then they began to chant for the activists who had been detained on March 16 in front of the Interior Ministry in central Damascus, like Dana Jawabrah and Suheir Atassi, in addition to chanting the names of their children.
When the police were unable to disperse the crowds, Atef Najeeb and 300 armed men arrived at the scene. Ahmad Al Rashid Masalmeh, a fearless protester who would be killed the following month, picked up a rock and threw it at them. The authorities opened fire immediately.
Mahmoud Jawabrah and Husam Abd Al-Wali Ayyash, who was known to have previously lived in the UAE, were the first two martyrs of the Syrian revolution. Several others were injured. One of them lost an eye and another lost some of his fingers. No one had expected to face such violence.
The next day the men of Daraa began preparations for the funeral of the two martyrs. One of Jawabrah's relatives had been threatened by the Baath party to keep the ceremony under control. He advised them to be subdued, but the men refused.
Instead, they chanted "A traitor, is [one] who kills his people," the chant that would soon be reversed to the now well-known, "He who kills his people is a traitor." They chanted "Ya Maher, you coward, send your troops to the Golan" and "Death before humiliation." When Masalmeh recites the chants, he almost sings them, recalling the birth of each one. He says: "We needed nothing but our dignity."
They were buried in what is now called the Martyrs' Cemetery. After the funeral, the revolution's cycle of protests, violence and funerals began. It is a cycle that has yet to be broken.
The activists soon began filming the protests, the funerals and the dead. They organised themselves based on their skills. quickly realising that the technical and media activists must be kept hidden for their own protection. Masalmeh is one of those media activists. He says: "I'd never used a computer except for AutoCAD for my work. I never knew about Facebook and had never heard of Skype."
He got a camera and a satellite phone and began sending flash drives full of content to Damascus and to Jordan for uploading. Then they began to post the clips themselves.
"We started an operations room," he says. "Every day we would go down to al-Wadi [which connects Daraa and Al-Mahata] to film the protests and martyrs, and then we'd come back up with the videos." They equipped the room with Jordanian mobile phones, SIM cards, laptops and batteries to support live broadcasts when there was a power cut. The organisers of the protests prepared banners, mapped the city, and assigned photographers and videographers to specific vantage points.
This work is not without sacrifice. The men of Daraa do this despite being separated from their wives and their families for months at a time. They move around from safe house to safe house. They have formed new brotherhoods with activists across the country and sometimes across the world and have to rely on trust, an instinct that has been killed in Syrian communities by decades of repression.
By the time the first group of boys were released on March 20, Bashir had been in prison for a month.
After he had turned himself in, he was sent with the others to a Military Intelligence branch in Sweida. Bashir says of his time there that it was "five days of beatings, beyond belief". When he first got there he was stripped naked and placed in a solitary cell. When he was called in for questioning, he was allowed to wear some of his clothes, but jackets and anything with zips were forbidden. So were shoelaces because "they are scared of someone hanging himself".
The boys were subjected to a range of typically brutal interrogation techniques. They were beaten with cables, poked with electrocution prods and subjected to continuous threats, as Bashir recalls.
"When we received food, we would be beaten; when we went to the bathroom, we would be beaten; when we were called for interrogation, we would be beaten. There was a boy who had stomach problems; when they heard that, they started beating him in the stomach. After one round of beating, he lost consciousness." He was taken to hospital, where he was found to be suffering from internal bleeding.
"They would beat us with cables on both sides of our hands and tell us they were going to break the fingers that had written on the walls. That's why our fingernails started splitting, breaking and falling out. Our fingers were bleeding non-stop."
They were asked over and over: "Why did you write on the walls? Who told you to write on the walls? Who are you connected with? Who helps you from outside Syria? Who made you infiltrators on us? How much money did they give you? Are you Muslim Brotherhood? Are you Al Qaeda? Are you Salafi? Who are you to topple the regime?"
The interrogation continued until the confessions were literally beaten out of the boys and they gave up the names of their older cousins and friends, or the names of anyone, just to stop the pain. Someone told them about Ahmad Thani Abazid, 17, who was not even at the school when the other boys wrote on the wall. Nevertheless, when he was tortured he broke down and told them he was a Salafi. He confessed to writing on the wall and burning down a police kiosk. He would spend eight months in prison before being released.
Issa, 16, was accused of "attempting to overthrow the government." He says: "They hung me from the wall and started spinning me. I was suffocating. I felt I was dying."
The boys heard the officers say that "we should not be allowed to live." Bashir says that all he wished for was death: "When I was inside, I regretted the moment I had written on the wall."
They were transferred to the Palestine Intelligence branch (branch 235) in Damascus. Masalemeh says: "Every branch was competing for a turn to torture the children." Here, the persecution was less intense, and the boys were ordered to scrub the floors and wash dishes. They were tortured in between their chores, but they were thankful for those "breaks".
On the Sunday of their release, Bashir noticed something was different—the officers were calling them by their names instead of using their usual derogatory terms. When they later arrived in Daraa, Colonel Louai Al-Ali - who had originally rounded up the boys - was waiting to greet them. "Welcome boys," he told them, "we are honoured to have you. I hope no one hurt you." But they didn't care anymore, they were free.
Crowds were waiting for them at the Omari Mosque. Bashir recalls: "We were scared. But my brother insisted we join them. They carried us on their shoulders and everyone was celebrating."
Bashir's voice softens with emotion: "We only wanted to spite the regime. We had no idea that there would be a revolution ... When I heard there were martyrs, I said: 'I will be with them until death, with those who died to get me out of oppression.' I will never let go of the Syrian revolution."
The Arbeen neighbourhood, where it all began, is now the heart of the revolution in Daraa. The boys' parents have opened their homes to activists; offering them food, internet and phone connections, and a safe place to sleep and sometimes hide from the security forces' regular raids.Those activists often talk now of "hitting the wall". Depending on the context, these words convey a sense of disbelief and shock, or of extreme grief and despair. I've heard them used when I speak to activists right after one of their friends has died. I've heard it when the regime's brutality surpasses even the people's expectations. I've heard it when the activists express their disappointment in the media's bias and the world's silence.
The revolution that emerged from the school wall sometimes feels like it's hitting that physical barrier over and over again, because beyond the toppled walls of fear are walls of grief and brutality.
Walls that a young revolution was not prepared to destroy; walls which the regime has spent four decades constructing. Even so, the Syrian people keep tearing those walls down.
A year later, the regime's answer to the people's cry for freedom is clear. Every day for more than a year, people have died. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned.
Hundreds of children have been murdered and still thousands more have been orphaned. Neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble. All because a regime refused to read the writing on the wall.
The Syrian people have answered that regime as well. Every day the thousands - with their brave stance against oppression - write, "The people want to topple the regime." And they fearlessly sign with their blood and tears, "With regards, the Syrian people."
Amal Hanano is the pseudonym for a Syrian-American writer who has written extensively about the Syrian Revolution.