The major role children are playing in the opposition to Bashar al-AssadAmr Dalsh/Reuters
"Mister, Mister, unless you have a weak heart ...?" Saleh, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee, playfully inquires about my welfare before showing me, on a laptop, high-definition footage of one of the most awful things I've ever seen. Two bare-chested men sit with their backs against a wall while a man wielding a chain saw commands, "Say Bashar is your God!" The man on the right refuses, and is slowly decapitated. The other man shuts his eyes, awaiting the same fate.
This is the second time in half an hour that I've seen the video. Upon arriving at Kilis, a refugee camp along Turkey's border with Syria, a gaggle of girls crowded around me, eager to tell their stories. One of them, no more than 10 years old, handed over her cellphone to show me the video; the other girls giggled at the naïveté of my revulsion. Saleh later tells me the film was shot last year, by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A little Internet research reveals that it's fake -- a dubbed import from Mexico, showing the execution of several members of the Sinaloa drug cartel -- but the children don't know that. For them, it is evidence of the manifest evil of Assad's regime.
Since hopes for peaceful change in Syria gave way last fall to an armed street fight between the Baathist regime and its opponents, children in the country have been growing up fast. Or not at all. Many Syrian children -- thousands, according to some opposition tallies -- have been killed. Some were collateral damage in mortar attacks; others were caught in crossfire or murdered in a kind of barbaric score-settling by the pro-regime shabiha militias. In such a young country -- 35 percent of Syria's population is under the age of 14 -- children could hardly have emerged from the conflict unscathed. Still, the scale of the brutality they have endured is shocking. In June, a United Nations special representative returned from a fact-finding trip with tales of horrific abuses against children. She relayed testimony from children who'd been tortured by the regime, or placed on tanks and used as human shields. The rebel Free Syrian Army was almost as bad, she noted in her report, frequently recruiting children to help out on the front line.
Seeing Syria's children as passive victims of a tyrannical regime, however, underestimates their role in the revolt. If they've been victims, they've also been protagonists. Think back to how all this began. In March 2011, 10 Syrians between the ages of 9 and 15, inspired by the rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia, daubed The people want to topple the regime! on the walls of a school building in the neglected provincial city of Dara'a. The vicious reaction of the secret police, or mukhabarat -- they arrested and, by some accounts, tortured the children -- led to popular demonstrations; from these spiraled everything else. This isn't been a samizdat revolution, sparked by epistles from dissident intellectuals. It was started by the spray cans of schoolchildren, and by other young people who then turned to Facebook and YouTube to get the message out.
Like almost all the refugees in Kilis, Saleh and his family are staunch rebel supporters. Three months ago, with the conflict gaining brutal momentum, his parents spirited him (and most of his siblings) out of Syria. As refugees have streamed over the border this year, Turkey's government has thrown up a number of camps like Kilis, so-called container cities in which thousands of Syrians live under heavy guard, in rows of dusty, identical boxes.
Soon after my arrival, Saleh takes me under his wing. He is amiable and sharp as an ax, with a neat crop of blond hair and American-accented English. I'm grateful to have him for a volunteer interpreter. For the rest of the day, he takes me around the camp with the confidence of a general showing off his troops. Like many Syrian children, he now knows more about weaponry than the average war reporter. "We [used to] just have Kalashnikovs and RPGs," he tells me. "But now we have some Dush-kas too." I look at him blankly. "You don't know what a Dushka is?," Saleh says, greatly disappointed, then pretends he is firing a weapon. "It's an English word, I think." Dushka, it turns out, is a nickname for DShK, a Soviet-made heavy machine gun the rebels like to mount on the back of pickup trucks.