The graffiti kids who sparked the Syrian Revolution

Orient Net - Ruthanne Sikora 2017-01-05 11:08:00

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Much has been said about what is taking place in Syria being a proxy war started by western foreign powers intent on toppling the Assad regime — but the truth of how the Syrian revolution for freedom and dignity began is a far different story that has somehow gotten lost in the conspiracy theories and anti-imperialist rhetoric.

“It started as simple teenage rebellion but ended up tearing Syria apart, setting in motion events that continue to rock the Middle East — and the world,” wrote Mark MacKinnon in an article published by The Globe and Mail on December 2, 2016.

And thus he began telling the story of a group of boys from southern city of Daraa (5 km from the border with Jordan) whose graffiti written on their schoolyard walls turned them overnight into unlikely revolutionaries and reluctant refugees.

Naief Abazid was only 14 years-old that fateful Friday night when he picked up a can of black spray paint and, in a typical schoolboy prank, sprayed the words his friends told him to write on the wall of his school in southern Syria.

That was on February 16, 2011, and almost six years later the young man told MacKinnon he was only doing what the older boys told him to. 

Naief had no inkling that he was about to launch a revolution, let alone any of the world shaking events that have happened since.

They were just having fun Naief said — and all the boys laughed as he painted “It’s your turn, Doctor,” just under the window of the principal’s office of the all-boys al-Banin school in his hometown of Daraa.

“It was something silly,” Naief recalled as he told his story publicly for the first time to MacKinnon in Austria where he was granted asylum after traveling as a refugee through Europe in 2015. “I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

But whatever redeeming qualities the Assad regime may have once had, a sense of humor was not one of them and Naief’s teenage prank would not be allowed to go unpunished.

In light of the uprisings happening elsewhere in the Middle East during what came to be known as the Arab Spring, the message conveyed by Naief’s innocent graffiti “was an incendiary political idea suggesting that Syria’s Baathist dictatorship would be the next to fall,” says MacKinnon.

It was an idea that ignited a violent knee-jerk reaction by Assad and set in motion a chain of events that have led to the destruction of Syria, half a million deaths and the displacement of millions more.

“Not all of them would survive the upheaval they helped unleash,” says MacKinnon who spent months traveling to half a dozen countries trying to track them all down for his article.

Naief was the first to be arrested and tortured by regime security forces after his handwriting was matched to another piece of schoolyard graffiti for which he had signed his name.

Mackinnon says that the thin young man is still stunned by all that’s resulted from his impulsive act five years ago. “I was the youngest one in the crowd. They told me what to write,” he recalled. “I only realized it was serious when I got to prison.”

Naief said he went to school as usual on February 17, the day after painting the graffiti, and was sitting in class when he heard the hall monitor take a call asking for him to be brought to the principal’s office. 

When he got to the office he was introduced to a man who said he was from the Education Ministry but Naief knew immediately from the man’s accent that he was from Assad’s home province of Latakia.

He was in fact a member of Syria’s highly feared military intelligence service known as mukhabarat. 

Naief was handcuffed and pushed into a car where three other men pummeled him all the way to the station where he was hung by his wrists from the ceiling and whipped with thick cables.

The slightly built 14 year-old was alternately tortured and kept in a narrow isolation cell until he confessed to painting the graffiti and named five of the boys who were with him that night.

Those five boys were then arrested and tortured into giving up the names of others who had also been at the school that night — as well as some who weren’t.

Determined to stamp out what it saw as a revolutionary spark, the Assad regime then engaged in a virtual witch-hunt and by the time it was over they would arrest 23 boys in connection with the graffiti. 

The parents of the boys became frantic after they were taken into custody but their requests to see their sons were met with “a stony and horrifying silence,” wrote MacKinnon.

Disappearances were nothing new in Syria under Assad and Daraa’s residents knew that it was dangerous to challenge the regime — but the disappearance of so many of their children into the hands of the security apparatus proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

On February 26, just nine days after the first boy was arrested, the demands of a delegation of local elders for a meeting with Atef Najib, Assad’s cousin who was in charge of one of the regime’s security apparatuses in Daraa, were finally met. 

“Najib told them, ‘Forget about your children. Go have new kids. If you can’t, send us your wives and we will get them pregnant for you.”

Three weeks later, on March 18, 2011, the anger of Daraa’s residents spilled over and they hit the streets in the first protest calling for the release of the boys and for government reforms.

The uprising had begun.