Syria's Spray-Can Revolution

More

The major role children are playing in the opposition to Bashar al-Assad

Spray-Can-Banner.jpgAmr 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.

The Democracy ReportSeeing 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.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The U.S. is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

Just In