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How I found the teenager who inadvertently sparked the Syrian war

In 2011, Naief Abazid’s graffiti on a Syrian school wall helped ignite a Syrian revolution that escalated into a global conflict. He now lives in Austria.


Mark MacKinnon is The Globe's senior international correspondent. He spent the past six months working on the 12,000-word feature, The graffiti kids: How an act of teenage rebellion sparked the Syrian war. Here's how he got that story.

The kid on the elevator was visibly nervous, fidgeting with his clothes and hair, as he ascended towards our agreed meeting point, a McDonald's in the mall that adjoins Vienna's Westbahnhof train station. The young Syrian was understandably anxious about meeting a Canadian journalist, and finally telling his part in the story of how we all got to this vexed moment in history.

Naief Abazid hardly looked like the rebel I expected. The 19-year-old's hair was carefully slicked back, and he was dressed in what were clearly his finest clothes, including a buttoned grey vest and spotted navy-blue bowtie. He looked like an ordinary teenager, one dressed to impress on what he clearly saw as a big day in his life.

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I was apprehensive too. Finding Naief and convincing him to meet with me had been a months-long effort, one that had taken me to half a dozen countries in Europe and the Middle East as I sought to understand what my editors and I had come to call the "Sarajevo moment" – a reference to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – of Syria's civil war, a conflict that has long since spilled its borders and affected all of our lives.

In our imperfect metaphor, a phrase scrawled on a school wall in the southern Syrian city of Daraa on Feb. 16, 2011 – provoking a violent reaction from the regime – was the "shot" heard round the world, the moment when everything started. And whoever spray-painted the phrase "it's your turn next, Doctor Bashar al-Assad" was our modern Gavrilo Princip, the archduke's assassin.

Investigation: Read the story of Naief Abazid and the graffiti kids who sparked the Syrian civil war

Related: Canada's year of welcoming Syrian refugees, by the numbers

Related: Mark MacKinnon's return to Syria's Zaatari refugee camp

Except I didn't know Naief Abazid's name when I started. Nor did I know that he had been 14 years old at the time, apolitical, and nudged into painting the graffiti by the older kids who were with him that evening.

All I had was a list I'd found on a Arabic website with 18 names of the "graffiti boys" on it (Naief says 23 teens, including him, were eventually arrested and tortured by the Assad regime, provoking the first anti-government protests in Daraa). I had no phone numbers or addresses for any of them.

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I started by reaching out to anyone on Facebook and LinkedIn to anyone with names similar to the 18 on my list. That led me, after many false starts, to a meeting in Sweden with a refugee from Daraa. He wasn't one of the graffiti boys, but he knew some of them, and he was willing to make introductions once I earned his trust.

Eventually, the trail led to Naief Abazid, and the McDonald's in Vienna.

My fascination with finding Naief and his friends was born from a growing sense that the war in Syria was the story that connected many of the other events unfolding around us.

There are, of course, the refugees, millions of whom have fled their homes, overwhelming the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Hundreds of thousands have marched into Europe – stunning that continent – while planeloads more were flown to new lives in distant Canada.

Then there are the gruesome attacks on Paris and other Western cities, claimed by the so-called Islamic State. Refugees have made up only a small number of the perpetrators, but the war nonetheless provided IS with a base to operate from in eastern Syria.

And then there's the increasingly nasty mood that has overtaken politics in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

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Politicians from France's Marine Le Pen, to Hungary's Viktor Orban, to Austria's Norbert Hofer (who may on Sunday be elected Europe's first far-right head of state since the Second World War) have seen their popularity spike as refugees have streamed into Europe and IS took its grisly war into the West. The exaggerated spectre of Syrian refugees arriving en masse similarly helped fuel the United Kingdom's shocking vote for a "Brexit" from the European Union, and Donald Trump's stunning run to the White House.

This story is an attempt to better understand our turbulent era, and its starting point.

There were other moments I could have chosen to focus on. Sept. 11, 2001 is an obvious one. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was another geopolitical earthquake, as was the global financial crisis of 2008.

But as tumult-inducing as those events were, it's the war in Syria that has pushed us into this period of even greater chaos.

Naief Abazid helped ignite the conflict – and all that's happened since – with his act of teenage defiance. But he's just one more victim of events beyond his control, badly knocked about by the upheaval of the past five years.

And, like the rest of us, he's deeply worried about what comes next.

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