May 23, 2013
Syria's two years of rebellion
On a cold winter's night in early 2011, some Syrian schoolboys drew a few slogans on a wall in a town the world had barely heard of. Two years on, more than 70,000 people have died in the bitter conflict that ensued, and calls for the West to give more help to the Syrian rebels are rising.
It was in the southern town of Deraa that 16-year-old Mohammad and five friends gathered to scrawl graffiti demanding the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family had ruled the country for 40 years. They chose to vent their anger at the pervasive fear and repression in the country at their school in the Hay al-Arbeen district.
"We never told our parents because we knew it would get them into trouble," said the teenager, who fled to neighboring Jordan last month. So on the night of February 22, 2011, one student scribbled on the school wall: "No teaching, No School, Till the end of Bashar's Rule." Another simply wrote: "Leave, Bashar".
"I started writing 'Your turn is coming, Doctor'," said Mohammad, using a popular nickname for the president, who studied eye surgery before his father, Hafez al-Assad, died in 2000, bequeathing him sweeping powers over Syria's 23 million people.
But Mohammad was spotted by the ubiquitous security forces.
"We did not expect the school guard to see us," said the youth, speaking in the northern Jordanian town of Ramtha three weeks after he crossed into Jordan with the help of Syrian rebels. He asked that his full name not be disclosed.
The boys fled their homes, but over the next few days Mohammad's five friends - aged between 13 and 15 - were rounded up along with up to a dozen other young protesters.
Their detention and abuse brought long-buried anger in Deraa boiling to the surface. It erupted in protest on March 18 - exactly two years ago on Monday.
Security forces opened fire and four people were killed, launching a cycle of protests and crackdowns across the surrounding, agricultural region, where poor rains and subsidy cuts had brought a sharp fall in living standards.
A monument portraying Assad's father was torched, and the chants of "God, Syria and Freedom" spread to the urban sprawl east of Damascus and other cities across Syria. As more demonstrations were crushed, protesters took up arms.
In the ensuing carnage, a million have fled the country, and millions more remain uprooted, homeless or hungry. Whole districts of historic cities lie in ruins, and Syria's economy will take years and tens of billions of dollars to fix.
The sectarian elements of the conflict, with mainly Sunni rebels battling a president from the Alawite minority linked to the Shi'ite Islam of Iran, are also straining religious faultlines that cut through the heart of the Middle East.
Mohammad says he now lives in limbo: "My family and friends' lives have changed," he told Reuters. "I am in Jordan, living a wretched life and just count the days until Bashar falls and we return to our home."