'It’s been six years since graffiti sprayed on a wall in the southern Syrian city of Deraa sparked a civil war that has since taken hundreds of thousands of lives and forced millions to flee the country. The boys who wrote the words, “Your turn next Doctor”, were inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in neighbouring countries — they had no idea their bit of graffiti would change the country.
“We saw the riots in Tunisia and Egypt and it encouraged us to spray the message,” Mouawiya Syasneh said by phone from Deraa.
The arrest and detainment of then-14-year-old Syasneh and his friends prompted weeks of protest.
“They beat me with cables, poured freezing cold water on me and electrocuted me many times,” Syasneh said. “They hanged me by the wrists from the ceiling of the cell and left me there for a day until I confessed to it and gave them the names of the other boys.”
The teens were eventually released, but their bruised and bloody conditions only prompted further outrage. The Deraa protests were one of the first major acts of defiance against President Bashar Assad. In response, government forces sent snipers to the city’s rooftops, cut off power and raided food stores. Other cities joined in the protests, and as the demonstrations grew so did Assad’s bloody crackdown.
Now 20, Syasneh still lives in the country and fights with the Free Syrian Army. His father’s death in 2013, when he was “hit by a rocket,” prompted Syasneh to take up the fight. While Syasneh regrets the suffering, he holds hope that the future will be brighter.
“Without revolution there can be no progress,” he said. “The path is not always easy, but inshallah [God willing] it will be better for our children.” '
A Faceless Teenage Refugee Who Helped Ignite Syria’s War*
'Some of the boys from Dara’a are refugees, like the teenager in Jordan, now 17, who agreed, along with his father, to speak as long as his name was not revealed. They said they were protecting relatives left behind in Syria, but their reluctance also came from shame: the boy’s father had given him up to the police, to spare a second son, and the teenager informed on three of his friends to try to avoid the torture he suffered anyway.
Given all that has happened, to his family and his country, the teenager said he had no regrets. “Why should I? It’s good that it happened,” he said during a meeting arranged by other refugees from Dara’a. Speaking of Mr. Assad, he said, “We found out who he really is.”
Recounting those days, the teenager said he passed a sleepless night after his cousin’s acts of defiance. It was not just the graffiti: the cousin had set fire to a new police kiosk the same day in another act of lashing out. The teenager and his friends did not talk much about politics, but the language of dissent was everywhere on satellite television. Small protests had begun to flare in Damascus. “It was the right time,” the teenager said.
The next morning, he noticed intelligence agents at a school and had little doubt about why they were there. “We knew what we did,” he said.
Over the next few days, the police, the military and the military police roamed the city “day and night,” storming the homes of suspects. The teenager said he went into hiding. “I thought it would pass,” he said. But it did not.
When the police finally knocked on the family’s door, the officers threatened to take a different son. If the father gave up the teenager, the agents promised, he would be held for only a few days. The father complied and took his son to the local security headquarters. The boy started crying, and begging to be taken home. But the father left his son behind. “You are to blame for anything that happens to him,” his wife said when he returned home.
The abuse began as soon as the teenager arrived at a prison in the town of Suwayda, where he was beaten during his interrogations. “Are you the one who wrote it?” the interrogator asked, more a demand than a question.
The teenager said he dropped out of school when he was 8. “I don’t know how to write,” he told the interrogators for three days until, desperate for the abuse to stop, he confessed to spray-painting the phrase, though he had not. He also gave up the names of three other boys who were there that day. Within two weeks of the arrest, the father received a call to go to Dara’a Omari Mosque for a protest, in part to demand the release of the boys. About 10 people had already gathered there. The father said he and the other parents were convinced that if they did not protest, “they would have taken more children.” The demonstration grew, and soon he saw most everyone he knew in the city.
It is impossible to say how things might have turned out had the Assad government taken a more accommodating stance toward the protest. Activists from Dara’a still insist that the pressures could have been contained, compromises reached, even after years of violent repression. Any such hope quickly passed as the deaths began to mount.
“People became uncontrollable,” the father said.'