Hamza Ali al-Khateeb was 13 years old.
And since a video portraying the torture inflicted upon him was broadcast on the al-Jazeera television network Friday, he has rapidly emerged as the new symbol of the protest movement in Syria. His childish features have put a face to the largely faceless and leaderless opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime that has roiled the country for nine weeks, reinvigorating a movement that had seemed in danger of drifting.
It is too early to tell whether the boy’s death will trigger the kind of critical mass that brought down the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year and that the Syrian protests have lacked. But it would not be the first time that the suffering of an individual had motivated ordinary people who might not otherwise have taken to the streets to rise against their governments.
The revolt in Tunisia was inspired by a street vendor who set himself on fire after being insulted by a local policewoman. In Egypt, the 2010 beating death of Khaled Said, an ordinary Alexandria resident, kindled the opposition movement that eventually led the uprising against the rule of Hosni Mubarak.
Activists believe Hamza will become the Khaled Said of Syria, said Wissam Tarif of the human rights monitoring group Insan. “This boy is already a symbol,” Tarif said. “It has provoked people, and the protests are increasing.”
Throughout the weekend, demonstrations erupted in towns and cities across Syria to denounce the torture of Hamza, marking an escalation in a movement that had until now focused its protests around Friday prayers.
In Hama, a city 116 miles north of Damascus, the capital, thousands swarmed a central square holding pictures of the boy and chanting “Hamza, Hamza.” In a neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which until now had not participated in protests on any significant scale, people climbed onto rooftops overnight Saturday, chanting, “God is great. Hamza, Hamza.” In Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, children took to the streets Sunday to denounce his torture.
A Facebook page, “We are all Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, the Child Martyr,” has drawn more than 40,000 members since it was created Saturday. “There is no place left here for the regime after what they did to Hamza,” read one comment on the page. An English version has more than 3,000 followers.
“Torture is usual in Syria. It’s not something new or strange. What is special about Hamza is that he was only 13 years old. He really is a child,” said Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer who is in hiding in Damascus, in an interview conducted on Skype. “That’s why it shocked all Syrians, even those who haven’t decided whether they want to participate or not in the protests.”