Young Syrian activists put life on hold in revolt

TRIPOLI, Lebanon— Last year, Khalid was a 19-year-old Syrian university student whose modest dreams were to land a job and earn enough to marry his girlfriend — not simple tasks given Syria's weak economy and his lack of connections to the ruling elite.

Since then, he's become a fugitive activist in the fight to topple President Bashar Assad. Khalid said he has been tortured by security forces and hasn't spoken to his loved ones in months for fear he'll endanger their lives.

Young people like Khalid have manned the front lines in the uprisings across the Arab world, organizing protests, documenting violence and taking up arms against government troops.

Analysts say youth frustration has proven to be a potent force in an area where some 60 percent of people are under 25 — making it one of the world's youngest regions.

Many youth activists say they had plenty to protest, facing adulthood in societies where decades of autocratic rule left them with limited freedom and constricted economies. For Khalid and other young Syrians, the uprising is about more than just toppling a dictator. It's a fight for their generation's dreams.

"I can't think about my own life now," said Khalid, now 20, after sneaking across the Syrian border into Lebanon. "All I can think about is working to make the revolution succeed because it will have a huge effect on the lives of all youth."

The young have been key players in Syria's uprising since its start in March 2011, when security forces arrested a group of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Daraa, generating huge protests.

Assad's security forces violently cracked down, deploying tanks, snipers and thugs to quash the spreading dissent. Later, many civilians took up arms to defend their communities and attack security forces. The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have been killed, including at least 500 children. Hundreds more children have been injured, detained or abused.

As the death toll mounts, young activists acknowledge some naivete in their decision to challenge one of the region's most brutal police states. Their elders often tried to dissuade them, recalling how Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people while crushing a 1982 rebellion in the city of Hama.

"Many of them were scared. They saw what the regime can do and told us, 'We were there in 1982. You weren't.'" said Mustafa, 24, who fled the coastal city of Banias to Lebanon last year. Like Khalid, he asked only that his first name be used for fear of endangering relatives inside Syria.

Still, many have decided that a chance at better lives was worth dropping their studies, jobs and marriage plans.

Before the uprising, Khalid studied engineering at a university in the central city of Homs, even though he was interested in computers and wasn't sure he'd ever get a job. He dreamed of going to school abroad, but government scholarships went to students in the ruling Baath Party.

He never thought about politics, but began paying close attention when uprisings toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt last year. In March, security forces stopped an anti-regime demonstration on campus, then forced students to attend a pro-Assad rally.

In April, security forces killed protesters in his neighborhood, Baba Amr, then posted troops to deter future gatherings.

"That was the first time I got mad and decided I was against the regime," Khalid said.

Anger grew in the neighborhood as the regime crushed more protests and raided homes to arrest activists, sometimes detaining their parents, he said.

Khalid started a Facebook page to commemorate those killed while working with other activists to film protests to post online.

In October, security forces stopped him at a checkpoint and found a photo on his cellphone of a government sniper, Khalid said. At the police station, he was beaten with a mop handle until his back was numb, then locked with six others in a cell so small that only three people could sit down at a time, he added.

For 20 days, he was regularly beaten during interrogations and suspended by plastic strips around his wrists, he said. He finally escaped with the help of a sympathetic security officer.

"After that, I knew I'd never shut up," he said. "I wanted to do the impossible to make the revolution succeed."

But first, he broke up with his girlfriend, worrying that their relationship would endanger her. She cried when he told her.

"I had to do it for her safety," he said. "I have set out on a martyr mission. As soon as you say, 'I'm an activist,' you know you could die."

At that time, Baba Amr was becoming a national symbol of the uprising. Army defectors has flocked to the area, making it harder for troops to come in, protests grew and the youth organized into media, medical and even trash pickup committees.

That defiance drew the regime's wrath, and in early February troops surrounded Baba Amr and shelled it daily. Khalid and the media team kept working, filming and uploading videos and communicating with journalists and other activists via Skype.

Despite the violence, there was youthful mischief. When an explosion near their makeshift media center silenced a rooster often heard in their videos, they commemorated him with his own Facebook page.

On Feb. 22, government rockets hit the media center, killing a number of activists and foreign journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, who had sneaked into Syria. Government troops captured the area on March 1, after armed rebels and activists pulled out.

Khalid says he's seen the bodies of some of his relatives in activist videos from the neighborhood and hasn't spoken to his parents in two months.

None of the activists' claims could be independently verified. The Syrian government bars most media from operating inside the country.

Another Baba Amr activist who also fled to Lebanon said he passed up a chance to study medicine in Germany so he could work to topple Assad.

"I reached a point where I realized that Syria could have a good future," he said, declining to give his name for fear of reprisals against his relatives. "I used to want to go to a developed country, but someday, after Assad falls, Syria will be like that. But we'll build it ourselves."

While international condemnation of Assad has mounted, diplomacy has failed to stop the violence and many activists acknowledge that the conflict is unlikely to end soon.

Most are still driven by the hope of better lives in Syria.

"I want to go back and study, get a job in a company," said Mustafa, the activist from Banias, who was a barber before the uprising and now helps Syrian refugees settle in Lebanon.

He, too, put marriage plans on hold because of the uprising, but is still in touch with his girlfriend whom he hopes to marry someday.

"Perhaps the day after the regime falls," he said, laughing.

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