March 15 will mark the first anniversary of Syria’s popular uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Since the beginning of the crisis, journalists have been barred from covering events inside the country, forcing international media to rely on activists on the ground for information and images. One year on, the Observers takes a look back at some of the most striking images of the uprising.
Deraa: Where it all began...
It all began in Syria’s southwestern city of Deraa, where a handful of students scrawled anti-government slogans on the town’s walls. They were quickly arrested by local police and subsequently jailed for a month. Upon their release, locals were horrified to discover that their fingernails had been ripped off, among other signs of abuse. Outraged, they took to the streets on March 15 chanting “the people want the downfall of [Deraa’s] governor!” There was not, however, any mention of Assad’s regime.
A protest in Deraa on 18 March 2011.
Clashes between protesters and police on 22 March 2011 in Deraa.
The spark that lit the flame
At first, Syrian authorities denied the demonstrations’ existence. By the time the government finally changed tactics, however, it was already too late – the movement had spread to the country’s three main cities: Aleppo, Homs, and the capital Damascus. Just ten days after unrest first erupted in Deraa, Syria saw its first mass protests following Friday prayer.
A protest at Al-Rifai mosque in Damascus on 25 March 2011.
Protest in a mosque in Aleppo on 25 March 2011. The protesters chant: "With our soul, with our blood, we will protect you Deraa."
A protest near the Homs' Old Clock Square, on 25 March 2011.
Violent crackdown in Assad's hometown of Latakia
The protests on Friday, March 25 even reached Assad’s hometown of Latakia in western Syria, but were quickly and ruthlessly crushed by security forces. At first, Latakia’s residents were not to be deterred by the crackdown, but in the face of such violence the movement eventually petered out.
WARNING: This video contains shocking images.
Latakia, 30 March 2011.
In April, our Observers in Syria described not only scenes of violence at the hands of security forces or the army, but also at the hands of the chabbihas, or armed civilians employed by Assad’s regime. Below is one of the first videos to show the chabbihas in action at Homs’ Old Clock Square during the night of April 18-19.
A war of images
Footage filmed in the northern town of Bayada on April 12 emerged online, claiming to show Syrian security forces as they beat their prisoners to the ground. In an act of humiliation, the victims were forced to chant pro-regime slogans.
The country’s state-owned television immediately challenged the authenticity of the video, asserting that the images were actually filmed in Iraq. In response to these allegations, two Syrian Internet users headed to Bayada to film exactly where the incident took place, marking the beginning of what would become a war of images between Assad’s regime and the opposition.
Journalists turn to Syrian protesters to help verify images
With no foreign reporters on the ground, the international media soon turned to Syria’s activists for video and photos of what was going on. In a bid to demonstrate that their information was credible, protesters started giving journalists the tools they needed to authenticate these images, specifying the date, place and slogans that appeared in the images.
The person filming gives the date and location of the protest.
The person filming shows landmarks that help identify where the video was shot.
A student films himself defying the authorities
On 26 April 2011, a young student named Adel filmed himself taking part in a protest in the town of Banias. Explaining the reasons for the Syrian protests, he spoke in English to the international community. Knowing how the authorities treat those who defy them, Adel filming himself without hiding his face was considered by many to be suicidal.
The next day we were able to contact Adel via webcam. He told us: “I don’t regret my actions and I’m not afraid. The most important thing is that the truth gets out.”
First mass grave discovered
On May 16, a gruesome discovery was made in Deraa, where dozens of corpses were unearthed.
Soldier announces his desertion via video
Filmed at the end of July 2011, three months before the creation of the Free Syrian Army, this is one of the first videos to show a soldier announcing his decision to desert. The video caused a great deal of controversy at the time as people were not sure if it was authentic or a deliberate attempt to encourage disobedience within the armed forces.
The child martyr
Hamza al-Khatib, 13, was arrested at the end of April in Deraa. He was tortured to death in custody. His body was given to his parents only a month later. He quickly became a symbol of the uprising.
Children in Deraa chanting “We are all Hamza” on 31 May.
Villagers seek refuge from army tanks in Turkey
In late June, when the Syrian army enters the villages of Khirbet al-Jouz, Jisr Al Shoughour and other neighbouring communities, thousands of refugees gathered in makeshift camps along the Turkish border, waiting for permission to cross over into Turkey.
Half a million protestors gather in the streets of Hama
The city of Hama, in western Syria, is infamous for the massacre that occurred there in 1982. This massacre was carried out under the orders of the brother of Hafez al-Assad, the former president. On Friday 1 July, the city ‘beat the record’ for the highest turnout at a protest since the beginning of the unrest in Syria – a record for which it would later pay the price.
Syrian opposition adopts a new flag
The Syrian flag was adopted in 1980 under Hafez al-Assad. On 4 November, following in the footsteps of the Libyan opposition, the Syrian opposition decided to distance itself from the official flag, which it perceived as a symbol of the repressive regime. Instead, it started using the former Syrian flag, which dates back to 1932.
Arab League Observers arrive in Syria
After lengthy talks, the Syrian authorities agreed to let Arab League Observers into the country at the end of December. Activists in Homs stopped members of the UN mission in the street to tell them their version of what was really happening there.
Zabadani, the first city to be “liberated”
On 19 January 2012, under-equipped soldiers from the Free Syrian Army were able to repel the regular army in the town of Zabadani near Damascus. This victory doesn’t last long. One month later, our Observer in Zabadani reported that Assad’s army had returned.
Citizen journalists in Homs pay a heavy toll for their efforts
Between the end of December 2011 and the end of February 2012, three Syrian activists from Homs were killed while filming the violence. Their names were Basel al-Sayed, Rami Ahmed al-Sayed, and Mazhar Tayyara. After their deaths, these three citizen journalists became well-known, but they are not the only ones. Many others have been risking their lives to send images of their ordeal to the outside world. On 23 February, for the first time since the uprising began, there were no videos broadcasted on the Internet from Homs due to particularly heavy bombing.
Last video filmed by Basil al-Sayed before his death.
The aussault on Homs
Since 4 February, Homs’ inhabitants have endured daily bombardments, which begin at dawn and continue until late in the evening. The Syrian army has particularly targeted the neighbourhood of Baba Amr, which has suffered the most violent bombardments. Hundreds of people have died there, including foreign journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.
Women and children are evacuated between two bombardments.
One year after the start of the uprising, the situation on the ground in Syria is catastrophic. The neighbourhood of Baba Amr in Homs has been practically levelled by heavy artillery fire. Meanwhile, the Syrian army is attacking other rebellious areas, notably the city of Deraa in the south, and the region of Idlib, in the north-west. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 8,500 people have been killed since the start of the uprising. Thousands of Syrians have left the country to find refuge in Turkey and Lebanon.