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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It was one year ago this week that Syrians took to the streets. First, young activists demonstrated in the capital, Damascus, demanding freedom. The following Sunday, more protests, this time over something more specific: the arrest and beating of a group of young men who were picked up for some Arab Spring-inspired graffiti. And so began the Syrian uprising. In the year that's passed, thousands have died with no clear end in sight. NPR's Kelly McEvers has the story of how it all began.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: In some ways, it doesn't even matter if the story is true. It's the story that most Syrians believe, and it's the story that started the revolution. We'll tell you what we know. It was February of last year. Two Arab dictators had already stepped down and other Arab countries were erupting in protest. A group of Syrians spray-painted the tell-tale phrase of the Arab Spring on the wall of a school: The people want the fall of the regime. But they added a line, says Nabeel al-Rashidat, who lived next door to the school.

NABEEL AL-RASHIDAT: (Through translator) It's your turn, Doctor.

MCEVERS: It was a reference to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist, and it got Nabeel and at least 20 guys arrested.

AL-RASHIDAT: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Nabeel has since escaped from Syria to Jordan.

AL-RASHIDAT: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Going through the list of those detained that day, he dispels the rumor that the detainees were mostly children.

AL-RASHIDAT: (Through translator) Twenty-seven, 18...

MCEVERS: Up until now, it's been nearly impossible to verify the creation myth of the Syrian uprising. Syria rarely allows Western reporters into the country.

AL-RASHIDAT: (Through translator) Twenty-seven...

MCEVERS: Only two of the original detainees have managed to make it out of Syria. We're told most of the others were eventually released but went into hiding. The second one who made it out is a teenage boy whose name we can't mention. Hi. How's everything?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Hi.

MCEVERS: Hi. We meet him at an overcrowded apartment building that houses Syrians who come to Jordan illegally. We just wanted to come and see if you were OK and...

It's heavily guarded by Jordanian police, security and intelligence officers. We're only allowed to talk for a few minutes. So you were one of the kids, yeah? He confirms that he was one of the boys who first spray-painted the graffiti. They call him the Child of Freedom. But at 19 years old, he has the face of a 40-year-old and his body is hunched and emaciated. He has scars around his neck.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: The boy later tells us by phone that he was detained for months. He says he was hanged by his wrists for a day at a time, beaten and tortured. His speech is hard for our interpreter to understand. He says it was altered by the electric shocks. By the time the boy first went to jail, back in February of last year, young Syrian activists were already online, trying to organize some kind of uprising like those in Tunisia and Egypt. They eventually chose March 15 as their start date. Dozens of people turned out for demonstrations in Syria's capital, Damascus.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MCEVERS: In this amateur video taken that day, you hear protesters asking for one simple thing: freedom. Many of them were later arrested. In the end, little came of the March 15 protests. The next day, back in Daraa, relatives of the detained graffiti writers, like the boy we met, went to the head of the security forces. Forget your children, they say he told them. Just make more children. And if you don't know how to make more, I'll send someone to show you. Ibrahim Abazid heard the story from his relatives. He says at first they didn't know what to do. The next day was a Friday.

IBRAHIM ABAZID: We went to the mosque and it happened just like this. Nobody planned it.

MCEVERS: A few guys started shouting Allah-u-Akbar, God is great; then everybody joined in. Next thing they knew, they met up with a group of guys from another mosque and started marching toward the governor's house. Officials told them to go home. Then the shooting started.

ABAZID: What's happened? Blood, shouting, crying. It's the first time it's happened in Syria. This is the first time for me, see the live shooting.

MCEVERS: Two guys who were shot in the chest fell to the ground. Ibrahim and his friend took them away in cars. A third guy who was shot that day later died.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MCEVERS: Soon, in cities and towns around the country, thousands of Syrians were taking to the streets, chanting in solidarity with the protesters who had died and the detainees who'd come to be known as the Children of Daraa. Even though most of them weren't actually children, it was enough to spark a revolution. The Syrian government sent envoys to Daraa to pay compensation for the protesters who'd been killed. Residents met the envoys to demand the release of the detainees plus a list of reforms for Daraa and for all of Syria. Ibrahim and the protesters waited at the mosque for the results of the meeting, but security forces surrounded them.

ABAZID: It's starting the shooting. (Makes shooting sound)

MCEVERS: At first, Ibrahim thought they were just shooting in the air.

ABAZID: But after five minutes, that moment we know they are coming to kill us, because they are shooting direct to our chest.

MCEVERS: Dozens more were killed. A few weeks later, the Syrian army laid siege to Daraa for nearly a month, killing hundreds of people, cutting electricity, depriving residents of food, shelling homes and mosques, and posting snipers on buildings. All the while, the regime promised to reform. The word Daraa became a rallying cry at protests that swelled around the country. Then, by last summer, some protesters began arming themselves and soldiers began defecting and joining the protesters. The government struck back with even more brutal force. In recent weeks, government troops have all but crushed the armed uprising in the central city of Homs and the northern city of Idlib. Hundreds of civilians have died.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MCEVERS: Still, the protesters, those young guys and activists who first rose up in Daraa, Damascus and all over Syria, have vowed to continue with their fight, even if it takes years. As one protester told me, the first time he shouted the word freedom, one year ago, was the first time he touched his dignity. Now, he says, there's no going back. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Events in Syria have echoes back here in the U.S. To mark the one-year anniversary, last night the student government at the University of California Irvine voted to call for the resignation of the chairman of the UC-Irvine's foundation. The issue is that the chairman also serves as the Syrian consul-general here in California. Michelle Vasquez is the student who introduced the motion against Hazem Chehabi.

MICHELLE VASQUEZ: There are students here who do have personal ties, who have families in Syria. And like all people, these students were really frustrated and upset with what's been going on in the Syrian regime and this is how they express it, by saying that they would not like to be represented by a man who does have ties with this regime.

MONTAGNE: The student vote is not binding but adds to mounting pressure against the Chehabi, who's known as a personal friend of Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad. While he says he opposes violence against civilians, the consul-general says he is not quitting his post. This is NPR News.

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