Eleven years have passed and still the Assad regime has not finished punishing the people of Syria for daring to rise up and call for government reform, for daring to hope that their president would honor their request to put an end to the brutality and corruption that ruled their homeland and that they be treated with even a modicum of dignity and justice.
The spark that triggered a revolution which was later turned into a whirlwind of death and destruction in Syria was ignited on March 18, 2011 after the detaining of 14 children suspected of painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school in the southern city of Daraa. The graffiti was inspired by slogans being raised in the Arab Spring revolutions at the time in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and said “Your Turn Doctor” in reference to Syria’s dictator Bashar Assad. The young men being held responsible for the anti-Assad slogan had viewed the incident as more of a prank than a real protest and had no idea that their actions would set off a chain of events that would devastate their homeland in the years to follow.
In reality, the idea of a peaceful revolution had been brewing in the minds of some of Syria’s young people even before the graffiti incident. Young men like Gyath Matar had been studying the art of nonviolent resistance as practiced by Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. If Assad had chosen to treat the graffiti as nothing more than a childish prank, who knows whether the people of Syria would have taken to the streets as they did. But to the dismay of many, Assad’s agents chose instead to detain and torture the schoolboys they had rounded up in Daraa whose average age was about 13 years old.
To make matters worse, the fathers who tried to claim their children were told to go home and forget about them. They were told by Assad’s “policemen” to focus instead on making more and if they couldn’t do that, to send their wives to them and they would do it for them.
For years, the Assad regime had been successfully suppressing even the thought of insurrection with their brutality and criminal treatment of civilians, but torturing mere children was a new low, even for them. When the men of Daraa decided that enough was enough, they hit the streets with their protests and it didn’t take long for thousands of Syrians who had grown weary of their own voices being silenced to join them.
Having had their anger and frustration suppressed for decades under the Assads, the situation was like a pressure cooker that had finally exploded. Protesters tore down the statue of Syria’s former president Hafez Assad, whose name continued to inspire fear in Syrians long after his death. Pictures of their current so-called president, Hafez’s son, Bashar, were ripped down and burned as well.
In the week of protests in and around Daraa that followed that first spontaneous outpouring, at least 55 people were killed. Across the country the pledge to support Daraa became a unifying chant: “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice to you Daraa.”
Millions have been displaced and hundreds of thousands have been killed. Much of the country lies in ruin and no one is willing to help rebuild as long as Assad remains in power. And the graffiti painted by the schoolboys of Daraa continues to be the spark of the origin story of Syria’s uprising for freedom and justice for all Syrians.