Omar first heard about the graffiti at morning recess. It was winter, he was 14, in the middle of 10th grade, and his friends said it was just a prank. The day before, just after school, a handful of Omar's classmates found some red paint and scrawled, "Your turn doctor," on the school's wall. Under most circumstances, in most places, such behavior might provoke a slap on the wrist — perhaps a stern visit from the police. But in Daraa, Syria, in February 2011, those words could get you killed.
The "doctor" was Bashar al-Assad, Syria's dictator, and incidentally also an ophtalmologist. Two of his Middle Eastern counterparts, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian strongman Ben Ali, had been forced out of office by massive public protests in the weeks before. NATO had just intervened on behalf of rebels seeking to depose Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi. And in the words of Omar's friends, it was now Bashar's turn.
It's been five years since Omar's friends wrote on their schoolyard wall; now the city of Daraa is divided between enclaves controlled by the Syrian government and parts that Omar says have been "liberated" by the Free Syrian Army. In the suburbs and countryside around Daraa proper, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, and some other jihadist groups control small pockets.
Like Syria itself, Daraa has been ripped apart by five years of conflict. What began as a local protest movement against the Assad political dynasty slowly morphed into an international proxy war that's drawn in the United States, Russia, Iran and nearly all of Syria's neighbors. Hundreds of thousands are dead, millions are displaced. While it's difficult to find a Syrian who honestly believes there's an end in sight, there's some agreement about where it all began: with Omar's friends. The graffiti they dared to paint on the schoolyard walls has become an origin myth for Syria's tragic conflict — not just for the citizens of Daraa, but for the entire country.
By some accounts, the schoolkids were deeply political; they painted dozens of political slogans that day, and eventually set fire to a police kiosk to express solidarity with anti-police protests erupting across the Arab world. Omar remembers his friends a little differently. Sure, they had an eye on Egypt and Tunisia, but Omar says they defaced the school wall because they were teenagers, and it was the rebellious thing to do, not because they were die-hard revolutionaries.
In the end, it didn't matter if Omar's friends were political radicals or just teenage pranksters. The day after the graffiti appeared, on February 16, 2011, the police started rounding up schoolchildren in Daraa.
"Doctor, your turn," the graffiti reads
Omar avoided arrest, but his friend Yacoub, who was 14 at the time and also in the 10th grade, was not so lucky. Yacoub admits he was with the group of boys who painted the graffiti, though the police charged him instead with lighting fire to the kiosk. "We were just playing around, we didn't think much of it," Yacoub told VICE News, speaking on a Whatsapp phone call, like everybody else interviewed for this story. "But we paid a price for not thinking."
Syrian security forces are so well-known for their torture methods that the US, under George W. Bush, called upon them to help interrogate suspected al Qaeda members. Over the course of weeks, the police in Daraa completely brutalized Yacoub. They forced him to sleep naked on a freezing wet mattress, they strung him up on the wall and left him in stress positions for hours, and they electrocuted him with metal prods.
Omar spent those few weeks comforting the parents and relatives of his friends who were being tortured in prison.
"How can you sleep at night, when you know your friends are being tortured?" he remembers thinking. "I would have even preferred to be in there with them, so we could have endured the pain together."
As Yacoub remembers it, his tormentors kept insisting that he confess to burning the police kiosk — something he says he refused to do. During these torture sessions, Yacoub would often hear the guards whisper that the interrogation questions were coming directly from a man named Atef Najib.
Najib, a cousin of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, was the chief of security forces in Daraa.
How Najib and his men treated the children in custody — and how he dealt with their parents — has become the stuff of revolutionary lore. By some accounts, Yacoub's father and the relatives of the other schoolchildren met with Najib, and asked for their sons to be released.
Najib told them to go home, forget about their sons, and consider having new children — if that failed, he supposedly said, then the men should send their wives to the police station to be impregnated by the security forces. Other accounts of the meeting have Najib telling the parents that since they had failed to discipline their children, the police would have to do it for them.
Whatever Najib actually said, the children's arrest and torture coincided with a moment of unprecedented vulnerability for Bashar al-Assad. And his cousin's reaction set into motion a cycle of violence that continues to this day.
When Yacoub was released from prison on Wednesday March 15, anti-Assad protesters were already rallying in Syria's two largest cities: Damascus and Aleppo. Dissent had been seeping across Syria that spring. And perhaps the first proper demonstration occurred in Damascus around a month earlier — after a traffic cop beat up a young man in the Damascus' Old City, hundreds had gathered and chanted "The Syrian people will not be humiliated."
But these first protests were quickly contained by the regime. They never gained wider traction outside of a few neighborhoods, or spread outside a small community of contrarian political activists.
It was in Daraa, a mostly Sunni city well known for its well-to-do families and close military and financial links to the state and the Assad family, that the first full-blown rebellion broke out.
Omar remembers going to mosque on one of the first Friday protests and watching the imam — who had for years read out a pro-government message at the end of his sermons — throw the regime's talking points on the ground.
After prayers, the families and friends of the boys who had been arrested poured onto the streets, and began chanting "We want our kids out of prison." The police responded with tear gas, live ammunition, and sniper fire.
Omar was among that first group of protesters, and remembers fondly how the people of Daraa — even those who had no connection to his friends — rallied around them.
"I thought the people in the neighborhood would be against us, and think we were just stupid kids," Omar remembered. "In the end, writing on that wall was viewed as something heroic and courageous."
A video of the March 2011 protests in Daraa
The protests — originally intended to force the police to release some of the remaining boys — spiraled out of control. By the end of March 2011, the city settled into a deadly cycle of protests, repression, and funerals for those felled by police bullets. As the city roiled, Assad sent in the military. By April, Deraa was surrounded by tanks.
Ismael, now 43, worked as an administrator at Daraa's main hospital during the early days of the uprising. One of his young cousins had been rounded up in the graffiti arrests, and Ismael was one of the first to join the protests.
At night, after work, he would join the marches. He always made sure to cover his face in the crowd, because the next morning, he would return to the hospital to help injured protesters escape before police could arrest them.
A few weeks into the uprising, Ismael secretly filmed medical workers uncovering a mass grave on the outskirts of town, he passed the film to a relative in the US, and it was eventually aired on CNN.
Afterwards, Ismael was arrested, but his family managed to scrape together $20,000 to bribe an official and get him released. He immediately fled the country, and he's now a refugee in Toledo, Ohio.
Ismael's parents still live in rebel-controlled Daraa, and his sister lives a 10-minute drive away in a regime-controlled area. Ismael's sister hasn't seen their parents in more than two years. he says his family's house in the city center was destroyed by a barrel bomb, and countless cousins and uncles have disappeared into Assad's prisons, or wound up dead on the streets.
He constantly begs his parents to leave and join him in the US. "When we die, we die here in Daraa," they tell him.
Thanks in part to Ismael's video, what happened in Daraa reverberated around the world.
Bassam Barabandi was a foreign service officer stationed at the Syrian Embassy in Washington when the protests broke out. The 44-year-old remembers those first scenes from Daraa vividly. Each Friday, he would arrive at work and the images of protests would be broadcast on al-Jazeera inside the embassy common room. Everyone on staff, he says, would watch in silence.
"We didn't talk about politics. We don't know who's who, or who will report on whom," he said. "We watched every Friday, hoping somehow it would get resolved."
By mid-March 2011, nearly every single one of Syria's major cities convulsed with protests.
Barabandi identifies the early citywide unrest in Daraa as a turning point in the anti-regime tide. "Without Daraa, there would be no larger uprising," he said.
Soon after the Daraa protests started, Barabandi and the Syrian diplomatic team in Washington received talking points from Damascus, instructing them to label the demonstrators as dangerous extremists. But from the first moments he was sympathetic to the anti-regime movement that was building in his country.
Within weeks, Barabandi agreed to meet in secret with Syrian-Americans in exile. He covertly helped them organize a protest outside the US Congress building that called for formal pressure on Assad to ease the crackdown. By 2013, Barabandi was helping Syrian revolutionaries secure visas to flee the country.
Yacoub still lives in Daraa, just a few minutes' walk from where he and his friends wrote on the school wall five years ago. Three years into the Syrian uprising, in his senior year of high school, he stopped going to school. Navigating the ever-changing maze of checkpoints that divided the town, both regime and rebel, terrified him.
His neighborhood, Daraa al-Balad, now sits on the front line that separates the city between regime forces and the Free Syrian Army, a loosely defined rebel group made up of dozens of different brigades and militias. Despite being tortured by the regime, Yacoub never took up arms — "weapons aren't the answer," he says. Still, he can't escape the war zone that surrounds him.
"All day we hear planes flying overhead, and bombs dropping," he says. "I rarely leave the house."
Daraa is only 50 miles (80 km) from Damascus, and the Syrian military decided early in the war that a complete rebel victory there would prove an unacceptable threat to the regime's long-term prospects. So while it has allowed rebels to hold some territory in the countryside, the Syrian military has blanketed the area with a devastating onslaught of barrel bombs. Noncombatants in rebel-held areas, people like Yacoub, live in constant fear of aerial assault. Last year, using satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch identified at least 450 distinct major damage sites from barrel bomb attacks in 10 different villages surrounding Daraa.
A bombed-out street in Daraa. Photo by Reuters
Those bombs, while imprecise, spread terror, and are intended to kill people like Khalid. An official with the Free Syrian Army, he now lives in rebel-controlled Daraa and he's had a few close calls, dodging the explosive-filled metal drums the Syrian military shoves out the back of helicopters.
Khaled first took up arms against the regime in 2013, as part of a failed rebel offensive to retake regime-controlled parts of the city. He asked VICE News to use a pseudonym because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Though the US government won't say so publicly, it's been widely reported that the rebels in Daraa are supported by a CIA-funded Military Operations Center (MOC) in Amman, Jordan.
The MOC-backed rebels in Daraa have been fighting pitched battles against the regime for the past three years, in a brutal struggle to control access to the Jordanian border. The rebels now control a large swath of the countryside around the city, but have been unable to take control of the entire city proper.
Khalid can't imagine either side allowing the other to gain ground. "By now every single household has a story, either someone who's died, arrested tortured, injured," he said. "For the next generation, if your family is on one side, you will be with that side."
Watch VICE News' The Battle for Syria's South:
Since Russia, the US, the Syrian government and rebels agreed to a partial ceasefire last month, the front line that divides the Daraa city center has been largely quiet. But the years of barrel bombs, offensives, and counteroffensives, have taken a serious toll. "This generation is pretty much destroyed emotionally — now kids' toys are weapons." Khaled says. "We all need therapy."
He estimates that the years of fighting have left 40,000 people dead in Daraa and the surrounding countryside. Those who are young and do not want to fight often just leave. And the streets, Khaled says, are full of old people. "Perhaps half of the city has fled by now," he says.
Omar decided to flee Daraa six months ago. He traveled by land 350 miles (560 km) to Turkey, where he paid a smuggler to put him on a boat to Greece. He's now living alone in a refugee camp, though he has a brother who lives in a nearby town. He's still in touch with his friend Yacoub, the teenager who was tortured for lighting the police kiosk on fire, and he wants to return to Daraa someday, and work as a journalist.
"I'll go back when I can do something useful," he said.
Khaled has the means to flee Syria, but he's decided instead to devote his life to overthrowing the Assad regime. He spends his days coordinating rebel activity around Daraa: he helps train new recruits, and make sure that some government services continue to function.
There are days, he says, when he's not so sure it was worth it. "When I see children being killed, I say to myself: 'if we knew that this was going to happen, then we wouldn't have done what we did,'" he admits. "I want things to go back to normal, that's my real hope."
Reem Saad and Sam Heller contributed to this story.