Tuesday, 15 March 2016

"Doctor, Your Turn," The Young Men Who Started Syria's Revolution Speak About Daraa, Where It All Began

 'Omar first heard about the graffiti at morning recess. It was winter, he was 14, in the middle of 10th grade, and his friends said it was just a prank. The day before, just after school, a handful of Omar's classmates found some red paint and scrawled, "Your turn doctor," on the school's wall. The "doctor" was Bashar al-Assad, Syria's dictator, and in Daraa, Syria, in February 2011, those words could get you killed.

 It's been five years since Omar's friends wrote on their schoolyard wall; now the city of Daraa is divided between enclaves controlled by the Syrian government and parts that Omar says have been "liberated" by the Free Syrian Army. Omar avoided arrest, but his friend Yacoub, who was 14 at the time and also in the 10th grade, was not so lucky. Over the course of weeks, the police in Daraa completely brutalized Yacoub. They forced him to sleep naked on a freezing wet mattress, they strung him up on the wall and left him in stress positions for hours, and they electrocuted him with metal prods.

 It was in Daraa, a mostly Sunni city well known for its well-to-do families and close military and financial links to the state and the Assad family, that the first full-blown rebellion broke out.
Omar remembers going to mosque on one of the first Friday protests and watching the imam — who had for years read out a pro-government message at the end of his sermons — throw the regime's talking points on the ground. After prayers, the families and friends of the boys who had been arrested poured onto the streets, and began chanting "We want our kids out of prison." The police responded with tear gas, live ammunition, and sniper fire. Omar was among that first group of protesters, and remembers fondly how the people of Daraa — even those who had no connection to his friends — rallied around them.
 "I thought the people in the neighborhood would be against us, and think we were just stupid kids," Omar remembered. "In the end, writing on that wall was viewed as something heroic and courageous."
  Ismael, now 43, worked as an administrator at Daraa's main hospital during the early days of the uprising. One of his young cousins had been rounded up in the graffiti arrests, and Ismael was one of the first to join the protests. A few weeks into the uprising, Ismael secretly filmed medical workers uncovering a mass grave on the outskirts of town, he passed the film to a relative in the US, and it was eventually aired on CNN. Afterwards, Ismael was arrested, but his family managed to scrape together $20,000 to bribe an official and get him released. He immediately fled the country, and he's now a refugee in Toledo, Ohio. He says countless cousins and uncles have disappeared into Assad's prisons, or wound up dead on the streets.
 An official with the Free Syrian Army, Khaled now lives in rebel-controlled Daraa and he's had a few close calls, dodging the explosive-filled metal drums the Syrian military shoves out the back of helicopters. Since Russia, the US, the Syrian government and rebels agreed to a partial ceasefire last month, the front line that divides the Daraa city center has been largely quiet. But the years of barrel bombs, offensives, and counteroffensives, have taken a serious toll. "This generation is pretty much destroyed emotionally — now kids' toys are weapons." Khaled says. "We all need therapy." Khaled has the means to flee Syria, but he's decided instead to devote his life to overthrowing the Assad regime. He spends his days coordinating rebel activity around Daraa: he helps train new recruits, and make sure that some government services continue to function. "I want things to go back to normal, that's my real hope." '

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