Last February, a group of young people were arrested for spray-painting graffiti on the walls of their school in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. They were beaten and interrogated. A year ago this Sunday, people went out to protest those arrests. And so began the Syrian uprising — an uprising that in some parts of Syria has turned into an armed insurgency and seen government troops respond with untold brutality. In all, thousands of people have died, with no clear end in sight.
In some ways, it doesn't even matter if the story is true. It's the story that many Syrians believe, and it's the story that started the revolution. We'll tell you what we know: It was February of last year. Two Arab dictators had already stepped down; other Arab countries were erupting in protest.
A group of Syrians spray-painted the tell-tale phrase of the Arab Spring on the wall of a school: "The people want the fall of the regime." But they added a line, says Nabeel al-Rashidat, who lived next-door to the school: "It's your turn, doctor."
It was a reference to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist. And it got Rashidat and at least 20 others arrested.
Rashidat has since escaped from Syria to Jordan.
Going through the list of those detained that day, he dispels the rumor that the detainees were mostly children.
Meeting With Teen
Up until now, it's been nearly impossible to verify the creation myth of the Syrian uprising. Syria rarely allows Western reporters into the country. Only two of the original detainees have managed to make it out of Syria. We're told most of the others were eventually released but went into hiding.
The second one who made it out is a teenager whose name we can't mention.
We met him at an overcrowded apartment building that houses Syrians who come to Jordan illegally. It's heavily guarded by Jordanian police, security and intelligence. We were only allowed to talk for a few minutes. He confirms that he was one of those who first spray-painted the graffiti. They call him the "child of freedom." But at 19 years old, he has the face of a 40-year-old, and his body is hunched and emaciated. He has scars around his neck.
He later tells us by phone that he was detained for months. He says he was hanged by his wrists for a day at a time, beaten and tortured. His speech is hard for our interpreter to understand. He says it was altered by the electric shocks.
By the time he first went to jail, back in February 2011, young Syrian activists were already online, trying to organize some kind of uprising like those in Tunisia and Egypt. They eventually chose March 15 as their start date. Dozens of people turned out for demonstrations in Syria's capital, Damascus.
Protesters shouted one simple word: "Freedom." Many of them were later arrested. In the end, little came of the March 15 protests. The next day, back in Daraa, relatives of the detained graffiti writers like the 19-year-old we met went to the head of the security forces.
"Forget your children," they say he told them. "Just make more children. And if you don't know how to make more, I'll send someone to show you."
Ibrahim Abazid heard the story from his relatives. He says at first they didn't know what to do. The next day was a Friday.
"We went to the mosque and it happened just like this," Abazid says. "Nobody — nobody planned it."
A few guys started shouting "Allahu akbar" — "God is great" — then everybody joined in. Next thing they knew, they met up with a group of protesters from another mosque and started marching toward the governor's house. Officials told them to go home. Then the shooting started.
"What's happened? Blood, shouting, crying," Abazid recalls. "It's the first time it's happened in Syria. This is the first time for me, [to] see the live shooting."
Two people who were shot in the chest fell to the ground. Abazid and his friends took them away in cars. A third person who was shot that day later died.
Soon, in cities and towns around the country, thousands of Syrians were taking to the streets, chanting in solidarity with the protesters who died and detainees who'd come to be known as the "children of Daraa." Even though most of them weren't actually children, it was enough to spark a revolution.
The Syrian government sent envoys to Daraa to pay compensation for the protesters who'd been killed. Residents met the envoys to demand the release of the detainees plus a list of reforms for Daraa and for all of Syria. Abazid and the protesters waited at the mosque for the results of the meeting, but security forces surrounded them.
"It's starting the shooting," Abazid said.
At first he thought they were just shooting in the air.
"But after five minutes, that moment we know they are coming to kill us," Abazid says, "because they are shooting direct to our chest."
Dozens more were killed. A few weeks later, the Syrian army laid siege to Daraa for nearly a month, killing hundreds of people, cutting electricity, depriving residents of food, shelling homes and mosques and posting snipers on buildings. All the while, the regime promised to reform.
The word "Daraa" became a rallying cry at protests that swelled around the country. Then, by last summer, some protesters began arming themselves, and soldiers began defecting and joining the protesters. The government struck back with even more brutal force.
In recent weeks, government troops have all but crushed the armed uprising in the central city of Homs and the northern city of Idlib. Hundreds of civilians have died.
Still, the protesters, those young men and activists who first rose up in Daraa, Damascus and all over Syria, have vowed to continue with their fight, even if it takes years. As one protester told NPR, the first time he shouted the word "freedom," one year ago, was the first time he touched his dignity. Now, he says, there's no going back.
Lava Selo, Rima Marrouch and Sean Carberry contributed to this story.