Middle East
4:50 pm
Wed June 1, 2011

Boy's Brutal Death Becomes Rallying Cry For Syrians

In Syria, the brutal death of a 13-year-old boy has spurred further demonstrations as the uprising there enters a third month.

Syrian protesters now shout the boy's name, Hamza al-Khateeb. He has become a symbol of the victims of the government's crackdown on dissent.

The Syrian government has promised to investigate his death. A video of his mutilated body was so gruesome that YouTube administrators blocked it, but they reinstated the images on Wednesday after a petition from human rights organizations.

The video is shockingly graphic. A chubby teenage boy is stretched out naked, wrapped in heavy plastic. The cell phone video documents the wounds that killed him — bullet holes to his arms and to his chest. The unnamed narrator describes each injury and gash, but when he gets to the mutilated genitals, the screen goes white.

The images are all the more shocking because it was Hamza's family that documented the evidence of torture and posted those images on YouTube.

According to a family member, Hamza was separated from his parents in April during a demonstration in the southern city of Daraa. His cousin, a student at a Tennessee state college, called home after Hamza disappeared.

"The security forces arrested almost everybody, even the dead. They didn't leave the bodies for the people to carry them. They took the bodies," says Hamza's cousin, Basel, who will only give his first name for the safety of his family in Syria.

'Everything Is Documented'

Basel says it's not clear exactly when Hamza died. His body was returned on May 25, and the video was shot soon after, says Basel.

"The whole family was there, everything is documented to show the world what the regime has done to this innocent kid," he says.

Posting the video was an act of defiance, says Wissam Tarif, a Syrian human rights activist.

For weeks, the Syrian army has besieged Daraa in a widely condemned crackdown to break the protest movement. Hamza was just one victim, says Tarif.

"He was given back to his family under the condition [that] you will bury your tortured son that we killed, in silence," Tarif says.

The family videotaped what was essentially an informal autopsy. When asked if that was a risk for them, Tarif notes that Hamza's father, brother and uncle were arrested.

"We can't think of a regime that will abstain from hurting a family after killing the kid," he says.

After the grisly video appeared on the Web and on Arabic satellite broadcasts over the weekend, the Syrian government mounted an official campaign to refute the charges of torture. The Syrian news agency released a statement that claimed conspirators faked the injuries after the body was returned to the family for burial.

In an hour-long news program on state television, a doctor said he was the one who released Hamza's body from a morgue. He said there were no signs of torture then.

'People Are Chanting ... Hamza, Hamza'

But outrage has spread, says Tarrif, and the protesters have a new focus.

"And definitely, they ended up going more to the streets," Tariff says. "Look at his Facebook page; it's growing ... thousands per hour. People are chanting at night from rooftops, from windows: Hamza, Hamza."

Hamza's name was repeated at the opening ceremony of an opposition meeting in Antalya, Turkey — the first meeting of its kind. Mohja Khaf, a Syrian-American, says the boy's death spurred more people to join this gathering.

"After that story started to get out, people who were wavering, people who were undecided ... I mean — it was so outrageous," she says.

The Syrian government has promised a full investigation into Hamza's death.

But a similar investigation has never been completed. At the outset of the uprising, a group of children were arrested for scrawling anti-government graffiti. Their parents claim the children were tortured while in police custody, and the anger in the town of Daraa was the spark for a protest movement that has now spread across the country.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.