Hamza al-Khateeb was a 13-year-old Syrian boy who loved to swim in the irrigation ditches of his family farm and watch his collection of homing pigeons circle the sky above.
On April 29, he was swept up by security forces during a violent protest near Daraa he attended with his father. A month later his body was returned, battered, broken and shot up.
His jaw and both kneecaps had been smashed. His flesh was covered with cigarette burns. His penis had been cut off. Other injuries appeared to be consistent with the use of electroshock devices and being whipped with a cable.
When al-Jazeera broadcast a portion of a narrated video showing Hamza's mutilated body last week, it set off waves of outrage online and in the streets where for six weeks protesters have been struggling to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Hamza's grisly death at the hand of Syria's secret police instantly transformed him into a powerful symbol for the country's weary opposition. If the state could inflict such brutality on an innocent 13-year-old, the protesters said, no one would be spared.
Now, Hamza's name has become a rallying cry for demonstrators. A Facebook page dedicated to the boy boasts more than 66,000 fans. With Fridays dubbed a "day of rage" by demonstrators across the Middle East, now Saturdays are known in Syria as the "day of Hamza."
The current wave of unrest in the Middle East has transformed several ordinary citizens into martyrs, their brutal deaths inspiring a broader movement. In some cases, graphic evidence of a government acting against its own people has proved game-changing, giving momentum to the protesters who are able to claim moral authority over a punitive state.
In Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor who set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his fruit and vegetable cart by a policewoman, became a catalyst for the revolution. In Egypt, Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessman who was beaten to death by police, inspired protesters to take to the streets after his postmortem photographs went viral.
In both countries, protesters ultimately emerged victorious, ousting the countries' long-standing dictators. In Syria, however, the outcome is far less certain.
Mr. al-Assad's government, in an effort to manage the criticism over Hamza's killing, vowed yesterday to investigate the incident. The government also promised amnesty for protesters, and offered to strike a committee that would lay the groundwork for reconciliation and dialogue.
Protesters denounced the moves as empty, saying at least 25 children are among more than 1,000 protesters so far killed in the crackdown. Among them: Two girls including a 12-year-old killed Saturday when her school bus came under fire, and an 11-year-old shot to death Tuesday while her town was under attack.
Images of children, wounded or killed by Syrian security forces are now flying around the Internet. Posted on Facebook and YouTube, they are impossible to independently verify, with journalists barred by Damascus from covering the unrest.
In the video of Hamza's body, a narrator states: "A month had passed by with his family not knowing where he is, or if or when he will be released. He was released to his family as a corpse. Upon examining his body, the signs of torture were very clear."
Hamza's parents have been warned by the secret police not to talk to journalists. Their son's story, however, has reverberated beyond Syria's borders.
Human Rights Watch issued a report yesterday stating "systematic killings and torture by Syrian security forces" could qualify as crimes against humanity.
U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was asked about Hamza's case in a Washington news conference.
"I too was very concerned by the reports about the young boy. In fact, what I think that symbolizes for many Syrians is the total collapse of any effort by the Syrian government to work with and listen to their own people," she said She added: "I can only hope that this child did not die in vain, but that the Syrian government will end the brutality and begin a transition to real democracy."
Deaths that moved the people
The death of a young person has often been a rallying point for the protests sweeping across countries in the Middle East.
Revolution spread across the country after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor humiliated by police officers who confiscated his cart.
The death last summer of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old man dragged out of an Internet café in Alexandria and killed by plainclothes police a block from his home, was a rallying cry for the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square after photos of his mutilated corpse spread on the Internet.
The Green Revolution of 2009 had a martyr named Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old woman gunned down in the streets of Tehran amid pro-reform protests. Video of her death went viral online.
Source: Wires services