BEIRUT: They are the icons of the Syrian revolution – the children whose innocuous and frivolous actions exposed the security state and sparked a wave of revolt across the country. The story is one of now-mythical significance.
When around a dozen students scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a public wall in Deraa in the country’s south, Syrian government forces moved swiftly in punitive reaction.
The children were arrested, detained and, by most accounts, tortured, sparking an outcry from their families which quickly evolved into a full-scale revolt. When the protests were met with deadly force, the movement grew, spreading across the country.
One of the children, 15-year-old Mohammad Abazeed, and his family agreed to speak with The Daily Star in their first media interview on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution, widely acknowledged as between the outbreak of the first demonstrations on March 15, 2011, and the killing of the first protesters in Deraa on March 18.
Speaking from his family home in Irbid, Jordan, where he now lives with his mother, father and three younger siblings, Abazeed recounted the weeks he spent in detention and the reasons behind his graffiti efforts, also sending a message to the rest of the Syrian population to “continue your resistance.”
“I remember everything,” he said, speaking by phone from Jordan Wednesday. “I could talk for another three years about what happened.”
Speaking with a childlike simplicity, Abazeed said their actions were simply mimicking events in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
“I remember watching the events in Egypt and Tunisia on TV and we saw how the people were writing on the walls there.”
“A group of us decided to do the same thing. We got the paint one night and we wrote on the wall: ‘The people want to overthrow the regime’ and ‘The next one is you, doctor,’” referring to President Bashar Assad, who has a doctoral degree in opthalmology.
Laughing, he recalled how each of the children signed their “signatures” and the year, 2011, making it easy for the security forces to round them up the following day.
“They came the next day to arrest us. They put us in the car and beat us and took us to Swaida [a nearby town to the north of Deraa]. I was with my three other friends.”
“They kept asking us: ‘Who told you to write on the walls,’ and we kept telling them ‘no one.’”
“We saw a lot of mice and bugs in jail. And the food was bad: rotten tomatoes and a bit of egg.”
The children spent some five weeks in detention, before community liaison efforts between their families and government officials broke down and the childrens’ mothers marched, demanding to see their missing sons.
“If the people of Deraa had not come out in the streets to demonstrate, maybe we would still be in there,” Abazeed said. “When we did get out my mom told me that I was a hero.”
Abazeed, who now attends evening school in Jordan alongside hundreds of other Syrian children, said he has become famous. “I am a hero at school now too,” he added.
In a sad twist to the story, Abazeed and his family are commemorating the anniversary of those days without their father, who is recovering in hospital after being shot by a sniper in the leg three days ago after returning to Deraa.
Crying as she spoke, Umm Mohammad recounted her feelings two years earlier, telling The Daily Star that she could never have anticipated the events that followed.
“We thought they were just children and they would only spend a few days in jail,” she said, also thanking the media for their interest. “I am so proud of my country and of my son.”
‘What makes me so sad is that we lost so many of our youths in this fight. So many have been killed.”
“God be with them and God protect them,” she added.
Young Mohammad also sent a message to the Syrian people: “Thank you for starting the revolution that got me out of jail. Continue the revolution and never stop the resistance.”