By Ian Birrell
It was a typical day for the teenagers, with school followed by a game of football – no different from millions of other boys around the world. Afterwards, they sat about chatting and joking, with one eye on television reports of the revolutions that had flared in Egypt and Libya.
There were seven boys, good friends who had grown up together on the same streets of a suburb of Deraa, a prosperous agricultural city in the south of Syria. They talked about the uprisings engulfing the region and their frustration that their nation, ruled by the repressive Assad family for four decades, had escaped the waves of unrest.
Suddenly, one of them had an idea – to paint graffiti on the school walls to annoy the security forces. So the boys waited until after evening prayers. Then, on that February night two years ago, they sneaked into their schoolyard and began spraying slogans of protest.
Bashir Abazed, 15, painted in huge letters the words ‘Ejak el door ya Doctor’ (It is your turn, Doctor) – a defiant message aimed at Syria’s despotic president Bashar Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist in London.
As the other pupils kept lookout, another of the teenagers sprayed a simpler slogan: ‘Eskot Bashar al-Assad’ (Down with Bashar al-Assad).
Afterwards the excited friends ran off home. ‘We were laughing and joking all the time – it was fun,’ said Bashir. ‘But now we do not laugh.’
For little did they know their prank would spark a revolution, one that would descend into the darkest of civil wars and rip apart their nation.
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Jittery security forces, led locally by Assad’s thuggish cousin Atif Najib, responded with such savagery against these teenagers that Deraa rose up in protest. After people were shot dead, the uprising spread across Syria.
Two years later 70,000 people have died, the savagery and sectarianism growing more horrific by the day; now there is even evidence the regime has unleashed chemical weapons. One million more have fled the carnage and shockwaves threaten the stability of the Middle East.
The ‘Kids of Deraa’ have become icons of the revolution. I heard of them when undercover in Syria four weeks after the uprising, reporting on their deeds and the vicious response for this newspaper.
Now, for the first time, one of them has gone on record and told the full astonishing story of the school pupils who changed the course of history.
‘If we knew our graffiti would have caused so much trouble, we would not have written it that night,’ admitted Bashir. ‘But we are not to blame. The trouble is all down to the security response. The regime fought back with torture and killing, thinking they could suppress the revolution. They were wrong.’
I met Bashir in Ar Ramtha, a sprawling Jordanian town near the border. His family fled Syria seven weeks ago and we sat talking on thin mattresses on the floor of a barren whitewashed room drinking sweet tea from small glasses.
The friendly teenager – now 18 and bearded – laughed at times, but also admitted to being plagued by awful memories of the horrors he endured.
At the time of the school stunt, he was the youngest and smartest of four boys from a traditional family, the only one to stay on at school, and with ambitions to be a computer engineer.
The graffiti was found the next morning by his shocked headmaster, who instantly summoned the police. Officers gathered all the school pupils, then took away ten at random for questioning.
Among them was Nayaf, Bashir’s 14-year-old best friend and part of the gang. They beat the terrified child, who quickly gave up his friend’s name. Bashir went into hiding for two days, but eventually Nayaf’s father found him and begged him to go to the police, who had promised to release both boys after they answered a few questions.
Some of Bashir’s family pleaded with him not to hand himself in. ‘But I felt guilty and responsible for my friend – I thought if I did not give myself up he might never be released,’ he said.
At the police station gate, he met a group of soldiers who said he should have fled the country. ‘They asked me if I was crazy, which made me feel like I was making a big mistake.’
Within minutes he realised the scale of his error. Officers made him strip and he was searched. Then he was given back his underwear and shirt and led off to a basement where three of them began the torture, beating him with cables and giving him electric shocks.
The authorities feared this was the first flickering of the Arab Spring in Syria, so Bashir was transferred quickly to a military intelligence unit at As Suwayda, an hour’s journey east. He spent the next six days stuffed into a cell smaller than the single-bed mattress we sat on, then taken out to suffer unspeakable savagery.
A section of rubber tubing was placed over his eyes and ears, so tightly that he felt constant pulsing in his ears. His hands were cuffed behind him and he was crammed, bent double, into a large tyre, with his back and feet left exposed for vicious beatings with whips and cables. His hands were also whacked repeatedly with cables as a punishment for writing anti-government slogans, causing his fingernails to split and fall out.
‘I thought I would never get out,’ Bashir said. ‘It was so violent – I just wanted to die to get rid of the pain.’
The lead interrogator fired endless questions at him, asking who else was involved, who had set them up and whether they were jihadists.
Bashir admits he cracked rapidly, giving them the names of friends. They did not believe his story, insisting adults must have been involved, so he suggested older people he knew in the hope of stopping the agony. ‘I would have said anything,’ said Bashir. ‘All I wanted was to get away from those whips.’
But the security forces rounded up the people he identified, including three of his cousins. Within three days, 24 people had been seized. However, four of the gang of seven boys were never caught.
During his six days in custody, he never saw his friend Nayaf because of their blindfolds but did catch a glimpse of his feet as they passed between torture sessions.
‘I could see the blood coming off his toes, his feet were swollen and they were blue, red, yellow – almost every colour,’ he recalled.
At one point, Bashir’s captors told him that they wanted to conduct an experiment. They cuffed his hands around a hot pipe above his head, before kicking away a chair they had stood him on; he faced the choice of burning his hands holding the scalding pipe or hanging from chains cutting into his wrists. He tried holding on, but ended up hanging from the cuffs.
Bashir and Nayaf were moved after ‘signing’ confessions by putting their bloodied fingerprints on them.
Armed soldiers took them in a darkened bus to the capital Damascus, ordering them to stay silent and crouched down, heads touching the seat in front. They arrived at the headquarters of the Palestine Security Branch, the most feared Syrian security force. ‘It just got worse and worse – by now I was wishing I was back at As Suwayda,’ said Bashir.
He was taken immediately to meet the chief, who asked what he had written on the wall. After saying the phrase, Bashir was beckoned closer to the desk where the official slapped him hard on both cheeks.
When at last his blindfold was removed, Bashir was delighted to find himself in a cell with Nayaf, although he was shocked to see his friend’s weeping wounds and dramatic weight loss. ‘The first thing he said to me was how sorry he was for giving them my name. I told him not to worry, that I had given myself in. After five minutes we were both crying. We sat there wondering what we had done, saying this was the end of our lives.’
Half an hour later they were hauled off for more torture – and Bashir was told he would not be released until he was 60 and his hair had turned grey. For 24 days the abuse continued, with even more brutality.
The security forces had also captured members of Bashir’s family. His cousin, Nedal, showed me where he had lost five top teeth, smashed out in one assault. Another cousin, Mostafa, told me that his genitals were so badly electrocuted and beaten with metal bars that he now felt too ashamed to ever marry.
Meanwhile their frantic families, aided by the influential imam at Deraa’s historic mosque, were begging senior government officials for their release.
A mass protest on March 18 demanded the return of their sons but when anti-Assad slogans were shouted, black-clad security forces opened fire, killing two people. This inflamed the protests, there were more killings – and the revolution seeped across Syria. Two days after the mass protest, the schoolboys were told they were being granted an amnesty by the president since it was Mother’s Day. On his release Bashir was surprised to see so many friends and relatives from his town – he had no idea all these people had been rounded up.
They were given their clothes back and some cigarettes, and Nayaf retrieved his backpack, with his schoolbooks still inside. They were driven back to Deraa and, as they approached, they could hear the sound of tens of thousands of demonstrators. ‘We thought that this was it – we were going to be executed,’ said Bashir.
Instead, protesters grabbed the captives from the bus and hoisted them on their shoulders, while the guards fled for safety.
Signs were hung around them, urging other cities to rise up, and slowly they began to understand the seismic scale of events they had detonated.
For a month afterwards, Bashir tried to return to his studies. But as events in Deraa, then the rest of Syria, spiralled into lethal conflict and the country collapsed, it became too risky to go back to school.
Like so many others, his family has now been torn apart by the war, with a brother and one of the cousins who was locked up with him killed fighting for the Free Syrian Army, and their homes destroyed.
Now the remaining members of the family struggle to survive in Jordan, where the flood of refugees has driven up rents and prices. Nayaf and his family live nearby.
It was all too much for Bashir’s elderly father, who died last month.
Bashir is working as a mason but says he wants to return to join the rebels fighting in Syria.
As we conclude our long talk close to midnight, Bashir tells me he is disappointed by the West’s failure to intervene in the conflict, as it did in Libya.
‘The kids of Deraa sparked a revolution, now we are saying please stop this cascade of blood. Please help us, give us weapons, anything, otherwise you big countries have failed us.’
I ask him what he would do when peace finally returns to his country. ‘I want to be an officer in the army so that I will know how to deal kindly and nicely with any future revolutionaries,’ he says.
Suddenly I see once again that naive schoolboy, whose mischievous deed on a dark winter night inadvertently inspired such extraordinary and epic events. He grins and we say goodbye.
Additional reporting by Wjd Dhnie in Irbid
Kremlin warns against Western move on Assad
Glen Owen, Will Stewart
Diplomatic tensions were last night growing between Britain and Russia over Syria after the Kremlin warned that it would not tolerate military action as a response to fears that the Assad regime was using chemical weapons.
Increasing evidence that Damascus is deploying the toxic nerve agent sarin against rebels has helped to harden opinion in Downing Street over the possibility of intervention.
But after David Cameron said this weekend that world leaders must look at Syria and ‘ask ourselves what more we can do’, Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, issued a blunt warning, saying: ‘Russia strongly rejects any moves aimed as an excuse for launching a military offensive against Syria.
‘We must check the information immediately and in conformity with international criteria, and not use it to achieve other objectives. It must not be a pretext for an intervention in Syria.’
Mr Putin, who has consistently opposed Western military action in Syria, has sent a powerful naval force from Russia’s Pacific fleet to Syrian waters.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called on Syria to allow UN inspectors to investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons.
But Russia and China have blocked several Security Council draft resolutions threatening sanctions against the Assad regime.
President Obama has warned that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a ‘red line’ and provoke a major American response.
Western intelligence agencies believe that Syria has mustard gas and sarin, and is attempting to develop more toxic agents.
Syria’s information minister Omran al-Zohbi said the accusations were a ‘barefaced lie’.
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