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Exiled Syrian who helped light fuse of uprising mourns the terrible cost

Displaced Syrians gather to protest the right to return to their home in Idlib on 19 February 2021 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

When Syrian teenager Bashir Abazed was arrested a decade ago for scrawling anti-government graffiti on his school wall, he never imagined an uprising would flare that would devastate his country. Now, he mourns the terrible human cost of the revolt.

"The war…broke a lot of things in our lives, it took away our childhood and joy, it made us grow up before our time," Abazed, now 25, said by phone from Turkey where now lives, exiled from his hometown of Deraa in southwestern Syria.

Deraa became the cradle of the uprising and later insurgency against President Bashar Al-Assad after two dozen teenagers including Abazed were rounded up and tortured by secret police for writing slogans against the Syrian autocrat.

The youths' act of defiance emulated the start of other "Arab Spring" uprisings that overthrew dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and their brutal treatment in detention brought long latent discontent boiling to the surface.

READ: Syria's conflict has made a 10-year-old his family's only breadwinner

It escalated into street protests that were met with deadly fire by armoured security forces. Clashes spread nationwide and a civil war broke out that devastated much of Syria before Russian interference helped Al-Assad regain control of much of the country.

Abazed, one of over 3.6 million Syrians who fled the war to neighbouring Turkey, recalls how a Syrian security officer forced him to confess under duress that he had scrawled the slogan, "Your turn is coming, Doctor Bashar."

Abazed was freed days later as the first round of mass pro-democracy demonstrations loosened the authorities' iron grip and security forces resorted to gunning down peaceful protesters.

After years of bloodshed and chaos, in May 2017 Abazed and his family finally left Deraa – which remained an opposition bastion for years close to the southern border with Jordan – and made their way to Turkey, where he now works in construction.

He still has nightmares of tanks rolling through his crowded Deraa neighbourhood, relatives and friends who were shot dead and others who began to carry arms and turned into insurgents, triggering civil war that shattered countless lives.

Today Abazed and many of his townsfolk are among millions of refugees who have built new lives in neighbouring countries and beyond in Europe, with no intention of returning any time soon.

READ: What is behind the new tripartite platform for Syria?

Many fear they would be drafted into the army or arrested and know that their towns and villages where anti-Assad feeling ran high were pillaged and destroyed. Most say they will never go home until Al-Assad's rule is over.

Only a handful of the original inhabitants of Abazed's old Hay Al Arbeen neighbourhood in Deraa remain, the streets mostly deserted. Some told Reuters by internet voice messaging that disaffection has grown again since Al-Assad's forces backed by Russian air power finally retook the town from opposition forces in 2019.

Police repression has resumed amidst the economic ruin, they said, while authorities have restored statues and portraits of Assad and his late father in public places that were torn down in the early days of the uprising.

"Nothing has changed from the days when we chanted for freedom," Abazed said bitterly.

We demanded our rights. But the regime has not learnt any lesson. If anything it has become more vicious, clinging even more to power.

A Deraa resident told Reuters that, in one small gesture of defiance, dozens of people marked the ten-year anniversary on Thursday by chanting anti-government slogans in the streets of the town's ancient quarter out of sight of security forces.

Al-Assad appears secure again after outlasting an insurgency that once posed the gravest dire threat to his family's rule since he succeeded his father Hafez Al-Assad 20 years ago.

"[But] even if Bashar has now taken back control, the revolution will not end and Bashar will never rule Syria as he used to," Abazed said.

"My anger is against those who claimed they stood for human rights but let us down and left us to our fate," he said, alluding to Western powers which did not intervene against Al-Assad in the conflict.

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