We tell the story of Mouawiya Syasneh, the boy whose anti-Assad graffiti lit the spark that engulfed Syria.
Mouawiya Syasneh was just 14 when he sprayed anti-government slogans on his school wall in Deraa, Syria. It was February 2011, and he could never have imagined that such a minor act would spark a full-blown civil war.
More than half a million people have been killed in Syria since the start of the war. Mouawiya’s home city has been ravaged by street fighting, shelling and barrel bombing. The war has left scars that may never heal.
Now a young man, fighting on the frontline for the Free Syrian Army, Mouawiya admits that had he known what the consequences of his actions would be, he would never have taunted the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
His life has been transformed by that adolescent prank. He has lost friends and relatives, including his father. And Syria has been changed for ever.
The Boy who started the Syrian Civil War offers a glimpse into life in Deraa since the start of the conflict.
We meet Syrians trying to lead normal lives amid the chaos as well as those who have taken up arms against Assad’s forces.
By Emmy Award-winning producer, Jamie Doran
I was in Moscow recently, chatting to people you might have thought would have known better. Educated folks, among them an experienced journalist. I had asked them a simple question: how did the Syrian war begin?
They uniformly launched into the answer that has been peddled so often in recent times, that it has now become fact in certain circles: “It was the terrorists who started it all.”
The fact that ISIL in its current form didn’t even exist in Syria at the time, or that al-Nusra wouldn’t arrive until many months afterwards, appear to have been conveniently forgotten – not just in Moscow but in most media coverage around the world.
The surprise, even shock on their faces when I pulled out my laptop and showed them the trailer for our latest film for Al Jazeera, The Boy Who Started the Syrian War, was a wonder to behold. They simply had no idea.
They claimed they hadn’t been aware of how, for decades, dissenters towards government authority had faced the daily dread of a visit from the secret police, of torture, disappearance and extrajudicial execution.
They had apparently never heard about how fathers were frightened to allow their daughters to be alone on the streets for fear of abduction, rape and murder at the hands of the Shabiha, Assad-family militias that operated with virtual impunity.
And they were totally unaware that it was a mischievous prank by adolescent schoolchildren that lit the fuse that set a country ablaze.
Early in 2016, I was sitting in Books@Cafe, a hangout for liberally-minded Jordanians on Al-Khattab Street, Amman, with cameraman and filmmaker Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali. He was busily puffing away on his narghile (hookah), as we discussed how Deraa, the city which had given birth to the revolution, had been virtually ignored by the media in recent years.
One of the reasons it had been overlooked was that the Jordanians wouldn’t let any Western journalists cross from their side. Almost the only other option was an official tour of government-controlled areas via Damascus that didn’t appeal to me at all, even if they had let me in, which was rather unlikely.
I’d spent the previous week sitting on the border, just an hour’s drive from Deraa, having established an agreement with the Jordanian military which would have made me the first Westerner allowed to cross over in three years.
There I was, in the border compound about to leave Jordanian soil, when a call came to the post. Moments later, I was very politely placed in a saloon car … and driven back to Amman. I later found out that the representative of the British intelligence agency, MI6, in Amman had advised the Jordanian government that it would be a bad idea to let me cross … even though I was travelling on an Irish passport.
So, back at Books@Cafe, Bakr and I sat chatting about how we could make a film about Deraa without my physical presence. It’s his home town. His territory.
“So, who do you know, who was there at the very beginning?” I asked.
“I know the commander, Marouf Abood, who set up the very first people’s militia, after government troops attacked his village,” he responded.
“Interesting. And who else?”
He went on to reel off half a dozen names; commander this, commander that.
“Come on, Bakr. You must know someone else, someone different. Someone fresh,” I said.
Continuing to drag deeply on the narghile, deep in thought, he told me that there was no one else that was really very interesting.
And then he added: “Well, I suppose there’s the boy who scrawled the anti-Assad graffiti on his school wall that started the war.”
It was one of those moments where you could have knocked my 90 kilos over with a feather.
The boy who started the Syrian war! Think about it. It wasn’t ISIL, nor al-Nusra, nor any other terrorist group. It was an act of defiance, a moment of youthful rebelliousness, if you like, that led to an uprising which has seen more than half a million people killed and a country torn to shreds.
It wasn’t, of course, the fault of this 14-year-old boy and his three friends who joined him in this moment of adolescent disobedience – a prank which would have enormous consequences beyond their understanding. But when they were arrested by the police and tortured in a most horrendous way, a line was crossed from which there would be no turning back.
When their parents and families arrived at the police station to plead for their freedom, they were told: “Forget these children. Go home to your wives and make some more. If you can’t manage, send us your wives and we’ll do it for you.”
Anger rose. The fuse had been lit and, when police started randomly killing marchers in the demonstrations that followed, armed resistance became an inevitability.
For me personally, this film has taken on an importance beyond many that I have made in the past. To be able to remind (and, in some cases, inform) a massive global audience of the true origins of the Syrian civil war, is an enormous privilege for a filmmaker.
For those directly involved in those origins, however, our film has provided an opportunity for reflection. So many have suffered greatly and sacrificed so much for a revolution which, by any calculation, is and will remain incomplete, no matter what the outcome of negotiations.
Mouawiya Syasneh, The boy who started the Syrian War, is now a young man who, like so many other young men in Deraa, carries a Kalashnikov rather than a satchel these days. As viewers will discover, his own family has paid a dreadful price for the events that followed his actions back in February 2011.
His own reflections are now a matter of record for the first time.