The uprising in Syria began in the spring of 2011 when rebellious teenagers scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Daraa.
The protest against their arrest, and the regime’s brutal response, sparked the wider revolt. Throughout the unrest, the country’s younger generation has been at the forefront of efforts to end the repressive regime of President Bashar Assad.
At a cafe in the heart of Damascus recently, a young man flips open his cell phone to show pictures of people killed in the uprising.
“Actually, they are my friends,” he says.
It’s a risky thing to do: If he’s arrested, the pictures will be a tipoff that he’s against the government. But he says he doesn’t care.
“If someone from the government comes to me and said, ‘Why did you put these pictures?’ I will tell him, ‘Take me and kill me,’” he says. “I’m not afraid to have these pictures on my cell phone.”
The 26-year-old won’t give his name. But his bluster is something heard often now from young Syrians. But it’s still rare to hear this from the older generation, and there is a reason for their fears, he says.
The older you are — Christian or Muslims — “the more you live under the umbrella of this regime,” he says. “You fear it more.”
A Generational Divide
There is a generation gap in Syria, says Abdul Aziz Kheyer, a veteran of the opposition movement who was jailed for speaking out.
“They were a generation who were brought up under the rule of silence,” he says, adding that they were accustomed to not expressing themselves and to repeating only what was allowed to be said.
Young activists say directly what they want and how they feel, which has been a shock for the regime, says Kheyer, and for their parents, especially now that the uprising has spread even to the capital’s wealthier neighborhoods.
“They were active behind their father’s back, because they don’t want to annoy him or make him feel afraid. And many fathers were shocked when they hear that their daughter or son was arrested,” Kheyer says.
But after 15 months, these young activists have transformed the country, and the older generation looks to them for guidance.
“The young generation now plays the role of consultant, not only in technology, but in politics as well. Is this OK or not, is this dangerous or not,” Kheyer says.
In a Christian neighborhood in the capital, a 17-year-old high school student who wouldn’t give her name says her parents now openly support the revolt. She was the first in her family to express her political views on Facebook.
Now, she helps her mother — although she still doesn’t know that her daughter attends demonstrations.
The protesters are fearless, and take incredible risks. On Facebook pages, there are even jokes about the dangers activists face every time they protest. An example? Only in Syria: To get to heaven, just cross the street.
Even as violence escalates, the creative voices are still the strongest, says Ammar Alani, a musician turned activist.
“They are communicating, they are organizing, and it’s all ‘virtual,’ but it’s working,” Alani says. “They have their opinions, and they are debating it. It’s millions of young people, just being connected and active.”
And you can’t turn it off?
“You can’t. You have to kill them all,” he says. “They are trying, but I don’t think it will work.”
In Damascus, activists are looking beyond protest and war — working out what it means to be a citizen, and what kind of Syria they want when the war is over.