On March 6, 2011, a group of fifteen schoolboys in the southern Syrian town of Daraa were arrested by local security forces. Aged ten to fifteen, the boys were caught spray-painting the slogan “As Shaab Yoreed Eskaat el nizam!”—“The people want to topple the regime!” They had taken the words from satellite television coverage of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The boys’ parents were members of Daraa’s most prominent families: Sunni tribesmen from the Haroun plains, which run from the Golan Heights along the Jordanian border. Their captor was Atef Najib, the head of local security, a first cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and a member of his minority Alawite sect. When the families approached him with a local Sunni sheikh, seeking the release of the boys, Najeeb responded with crude insults, according to an account by an Al Jazeera reporter. He told them to forget their children, go home to their wives, have sex, and make more.
On March 18th, with their boys still in custody, the furious families and local clerics marched on the offices of Faisal Kalthoum, the local governor—another Assad intimate from Damascus. Security forces opened fire, killing at least four persons. When the boys were freed several days later, they were disfigured with marks of torture, including extracted fingernails. Another demonstration erupted; the governor’s office was burned. Syria’s uprising had begun.