At the start of it all, before the uprising and the civil war – and the refugee exodus and the terror and the hatred that have sprung from it – a 14-year-old boy stood giggling with a can of black spray paint, pointing it at the wall of his school in southern Syria.
Naief Abazid had no inkling that he was about to launch a revolution, or anything else that has followed. He was just doing what the bigger kids told him to. Trying to make them laugh. “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad, ” he painted, just under the window of the principal’s office of the all-boys al-Banin school in his hometown of Daraa. The date was Feb. 16, 2011.
It was an incendiary political idea – suggesting that Syria’s Baathist dictatorship would be the next to fall after the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, written by an apolitical teenage prankster. Painted on a cool and dry winter evening, it would improbably set in motion a chain reaction of events that continue to rock the Middle East – and the world.
“It was something silly,” Naief told me as we sat in a McDonald’s at the train station in Vienna, more than 3,000 kilometres away from where it all began. It was his first retelling (other than his interview with Austrian immigration authorities) of what happened that day in Daraa, and his life in the five harrowing years since. “I was a kid. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
A neighbour who came to the school that night to see the graffiti calls those words – combined with the regime’s violent reaction – “an explosion.” The fallout is still landing all around us.
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