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.
He leads me into a tiny square of yard beside one of the containers to inter-view a Free Syrian Army soldier and the soldier's uncle. While we talk, the soldier's brother, a boy of about 6, sits on a barrel, playing shyly with marbles. We try involving him in our conversation. "What do you want to do to the president?" asks his uncle. "I will kill Bashar al-Assad," the boy says, a little dutifully, and everyone laughs. Someone suggests letting the boy hold a Kalashnikov, but the uncle, who does logistics work for the rebels, is suspicious of journalists. "You will write that we are giving guns to children to fight," he says, and moves the weapon out of sight.
The plot line here is not that simple. Outsiders may respond most readily to stories of suffering innocents and indecipherable evil. But many young Syrians have already lost their innocence. It does them an injustice to suggest that they are all passive victims, killed for no reason -- and it defies logic to think that the Syrian army is so cruelly ham-fisted as to be killing children at random.
In Damascus earlier this year, I went in search of a funeral procession that I had been told was likely to turn into a demonstration. As I neared the designated area, I saw a crowd of old men standing around nervously on a street corner, staring expectantly in the direction of a mosque where several people were to be buried that day, and where the procession was due to begin. Presently, a boy of about 10 showed up to lead the way, flanked by a second boy on a bicycle. "Allahu Akbar," the first boy shouted over and over, his voice growing louder and more aggressive as he led the crowd.
I soon came face to face with the body of a child, held aloft on a wooden board by mourners. He was no more than 12 and had, everyone there said, been killed by the Syrian army. Soon, the shabiha would descend and scatter the crowd, but until then, we marched through the city's side streets. As we walked, a middle-aged man told me that activists allow children to take the leading role at demonstrations. "They have more energy than us," he said.
At the end of our walkabout through the Kilis camp, Saleh confides that his father is due to return to Aleppo province tomorrow, to help the rebels. It is a dangerous mission: the stretch of land on the other side of the border is front-line territory, largely controlled by rebels but under constant risk of ambush from regime troops and helicopters. Saleh's mother doesn't want her son to go along, but as I leave, he is still badgering his parents to let him make the trip. In the end, despite their protestations, he gets his way.