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Shadi Alshhabi Headshot

The Day Bashar's Mask Slipped

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The beginning of 2011 was an inspiring time for the Middle East. Tunisia and Egypt had both seen uprisings that toppled dictators and it seemed the revolutionary fever was spreading.

One phrase resounded through the streets of the region, "the people want the fall of the regime". It had almost become a mantra in Tunisia and Egypt, and was being heard more and more in Libya and Yemen.

At the end of February 2011 someone decided to write this phrase on a school wall in a city called Daraa in southern Syria.

Even today, no-one knows who really daubed the graffiti. Even if it was those accused, it's possible they didn't even understand the meaning of the words they had written.

Either way, Syrian authorities responded by arresting a group of minors, all around the age of 15.

Being arrested in Syria does not mean being locked in a room; it is an experience more reminiscent of being held in a Dark Age dungeon, where brutality and mistreatment are standard practice.

The children were tortured and their finger nails pulled out. They were beaten to the point their faces were unrecognisable.

Rumours of the torture got back to the residents of the city and they elected a group of professionals to visit the governor and plea for the release of the children.

The governor in turn denied having anything to do with the arrests; he suggested the delegation talk to Atef Najeeb, a local military security officer who is also the cousin of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad.

Najeeb treated the delegation from Daraa with contempt. He told them they should forget about the children and 'replace them with others'. If the men were not able to impregnate their wives, he suggested, his men would be able to help with this.

Outraged, the group called a small protest in the city for Friday 18 March, demanding freedom and dignity.

No one present was calling for the fall of the regime.

The security forces retaliated by shooting at them with live ammunition, killing four people.

They blocked the city and surrounded the province of Daraa with military forces; they also closed the mosque where the protest had originated.

News of this spread from village to village sparking rising anger in the province at the injustice.

Another peaceful demonstration was organised for the 23 March. The plan was to march to the closed mosque and hold prayers there.

Marching from village to village, more and more citizens joined. By the time the citizens of Daraa reached the city, the demonstration had swelled to tens of thousands of people. The military could do nothing to stop them entering.

Holding olive branches, they marched down the main street. As they did so, they were showered with bullets from the roofs above. The security forces were relentless, and according to eyewitnesses hundreds were killed.

When the sun rose the next day, it rose to funerals in almost every village in Daraa. I attended four funerals in one day - one of them for my cousin. Over the following days I visited at least 20 grieving families.

Next the Assad regime tried appeasement. The day after the bloody crackdown, president spokesperson Bothyana Shaaban announced there a raise in salaries and a cut in the price of diesel.

This was a slap in the face for the people of Daraa. People had not given their lives for more money or for cheaper fuel - they were making the sacrifice for freedom and dignity.

President Al-Assad held a crisis meeting with party leaders and politicians. He didn't meet with the interior minister nor the minister of defence - it was them, and not everyday politicians, who were giving orders to the soldiers and policemen who killed people.

This gave me the impression that Al-Assad didn't have control over the country's security services, even in the very first week of the uprising.

In the following days the families of the Daraa deceased received offers of one million Syrian pounds ($20,000). They also received letters of apology in which the deceased was designated a 'martyr'. This was a big concession from the state, bringing with it a monthly stipend, and special consideration for family members in schools and universities.

The letter of apology came from the Ba'ath Party, not from the ministry of defence which normally declares people martyrs and provides the financial support. This also seems to signal a divide between the political and security forces.

Protests continued in the villages and many protesters believed that the young, educated reformer Bashar Al-Assad would pull the country out of the crisis by limiting the power of his security services.

The 29 March was the day these peoples' hopes were shattered, and it was the day I joined the revolution.

I watched the footage of the president entering parliament. He was three hours late but at least wearing a black tie.

I waited for him to announce a minute's silence for the lost souls, but waited in vain. Instead he laughed and smiled as the members of parliament cheered and clapped, offering him the wildest praise.

He went on to read a very simple speech directly from the paper in from on him. It later transpired that the one Member of Parliament who had tried to talk about Daraa had been expelled before Al-Assad's arrival.

29 March was the day the mask fell and Syria saw the true evil face of its 'Democratic' leader.

29 March was the day my eyes were opened. It was the start of this revolution for me.

29 March was a sad day indeed.

Please visit the Unite For Syria Facebook page here, follow the #UniteForSyria Hashtag on Twitter and watch the Unite For Syria video on YouTube.

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