Deraa protests: Organiser recalls start of Syrian uprising
Two years ago Bashar al-Heraki helped organise one of the first anti-government protests in Syria's southern city of Deraa, where the country's uprising began. It followed the arrest of a group of school children for painting revolutionary slogans on a wall. Mr Heraki told the BBC World Service how the demonstrations began.
On 17 March 2011, I was with a group of people preparing for a protest. The next day we went to al-Omari mosque in Deraa. The Syrian revolution started from there. We thought our protest would annoy the regime but we didn't expect government forces to use gunfire from the start to kill protesters.
- Served as a captain in the Syrian army until 1999
- Ran an engineering and trading company in Deraa before the uprising
- Fled Syria with his family in 2011 fearing arrest
- His brother, Nizar al-Heraki, is the opposition's "ambassador" in Qatar
- Senior member of the opposition Syrian National Council
When we came out of the mosque some people started chanting: "God, Syria, freedom." The regime saw that as defiance against them, because people had replaced the last part of a slogan, which was supposed to be [President] Bashar al-Assad, with the word freedom. So the regime reacted by killing and injuring many protesters.
I was taking photos. It surprised us that Bashar al-Assad's forces were heavy-handed from the beginning. They didn't try to issue any warnings, they just charged us straight away. They didn't use tear gas or water cannon. They fired at us from the start.
'End of the regime'
Of course we were afraid because fear had always existed inside us all, but we had to conquer our fear and announce that we needed freedom. We had seen the victory of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt and it was on its way to Libya.
We, the protesters, were united. More and more young people agreed with what we stood for and joined us. The demonstrations then began to spread to other parts of Deraa until the security forces started to fire at us. People began to run away and disperse. As for us, we were trying to care for the injured and carrying the bodies of those who were killed to the hospital.
- The conflict has left more than 70,000 people dead
- More than one million Syrians have fled abroad
- About two million people have been internally displaced
- Save the Children says that some two million children are in need of help in Syria
When we saw the first drop of blood, we felt that it was the end of the regime and that there was no going back, because government forces had killed civilians for what they stood for. We got more support from the people, including civil society leaders and intellectuals.
We agreed that the following day we would gather again. We also started to organise strikes. I wrote leaflets saying that the government forces were killers.
Signs of torture
During the protests we were chanting loudly at the security forces: "You are supposed to be our brothers. We all are citizens of Syria. We are not enemies. You should protect us." They told us that it was a security issue and that they would do everything possible to maintain security. They didn't listen to us.
The families of the arrested school children were very afraid. I know the mother of one kid. She had heard about the arrest of her son's friends, so she took him with her and they fled. They were moving from town to town, but the security people kept following them and looking for her son.
After the arrested boys were released, their families were overcome with fear, especially when they saw the marks on the boys' bodies from the torture they had undergone.
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Bashar al-Heraki was interviewed by Shaimaa Khalil for Newsday on the BBC World Service
I don't think we can get rid of such a regime without sacrifices. In fact, I believe we are in this situation because the international community has just been watching without doing anything for two years.
If there was a real desire from the international community to stop Assad's regime, he would not have been able to use heavy weapons against us. The whole world has disappointed us.
Bashar al-Heraki spoke to Newsday on the BBC World Service.