On April 29, 2011, 13-year-old Syrian Hamza al-Khatib was arrested and detained by Syrian security forces. His family never saw him alive again. It’s not clear why the boy was arrested, or for what crime.
When Hamza’s corpse was returned to his hometown of al-Jizah a month later, it was almost unrecognizable. During the course of his detention, Hamza had been shot in both arms, cut, and beaten. Electrodes had been attached to his body, he had been whipped, and his neck had been broken. At some stage during the steady, deliberate process of extracting the life from Hamza’s body, his penis had been cut off.
...the hunger for some kind of freedom, or democracy, in Syria is such that thousands of people appear ready to pay for it with their lives.
Hamza is just one of the hundreds of children who have been murdered by the Syrian government as it seeks to maintain its chilling grip on power and punish protesters and their families.
Last week, government goons known as “al-Shabiha,” or “the ghosts,” raided the Ghantawi family home near al-Firdaos square in the al-Nazirheen area of the city of Homs. Two boys, aged seven and five, were shot dead, as was a 15-year-old girl. Their parents were also executed. On the same night, two other families living nearby were targeted and wiped out, again killed in their homes.
To date, the United Nations estimates that 400 children have been killed in 11 months of Syrian unrest, with a further 400 detained who are facing sexual abuse and torture.
The total number of people killed since March 2011 is believed to exceed 7,000.
Syria is sliding into civil war. The plaintive cry that rose from the streets last year was for self-determination. President Bashar al-Assad has decided change will happen on his terms, and dissenters will be ground into the dirt of Syria's streets.
Assad has many supporters. He is well armed, and most within his security forces have remained loyal. Syrians are splitting along religious, ethnic and class lines. The West has not intervened, and it would not be welcome if it tried.
But the desire for freedom has not been crushed. The extraordinary thing about what we are witnessing in Syria is that, despite the ongoing atrocities, its citizens seem just as determined to effect change as they have been at any time over the last 11 months.
The difference is that people nowadays take to the streets in the almost certain knowledge that they will be shot at. But the hunger for some kind of freedom, or democracy in Syria, is such that thousands of people appear ready to pay for it with their lives.
Will the revolution succeed? The ordinary Syrians who started the uprising were originally determined to do this on their own terms, but many among them would now accept a resolution in their favour is unlikely to come from within. All the talk now is of what the international community is going to do.
Last week China and Russia (Syria’s biggest ally) blocked a relatively meek United Nations Security Council resolution that called upon Bashar Assad to hand over some responsibilities to a deputy and stop killing his people.
Russia’s position is complex. Syria’s strategic importance in the Middle East means that human lives are being weighed against the geopolitical pros and cons of supporting Bashad’s murderous regime. The Russians are basically looking out for themselves, and don’t see the merit in intervention.
Western governments are united in their condemnation of what is happening, and people who do care are doing whatever they can to try to engineer some kind of international consensus. In the light of the failed UN Security Council resolution, it’s hoped the Arab League can make some headway. Right now this looks unlikely.
The inevitable consequence is that while the talking goes on, more civilians, more women, and more 13 year olds like Hamza al-Khatib will die horrific and pointless deaths, just for wanting a future in which they can be free.