A Syrian Graffiti Artist, Defiant Until Death

May 2, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 9:44 am

They called him "the spray man" for his graffiti that appeared all over the Syrian capital of Damascus. But in truth, 23-year-old Nour Hatem Zahra was an activist like any other activist.

He started protesting in Syria last spring. Back then, the opposition thought it would only take a few months to get rid of President Bashar Assad, as it had in Tunisia and Egypt.

Then Syrian forces started killing protesters, detaining them, torturing them. And the people started fighting back.

But still, there was Nour Hatem Zahra and his friends — organizing protests, hiding activists from the dreaded security forces, ferrying medical supplies to those who were injured but terrified to go to a government hospital.

Then late last year, Zahra got caught. Under torture, one of his friends had given up his name. Zahra later forgave the friend.

He was locked up for 56 days. As soon as he got out, he was at it again. He and his friends went around spraying the suburbs of Syria's capital, Damascus, with slogans against the Syrian president: "Down with the traitor." "To the trash heap of history." Pictures of the president with the word "pig" scrawled underneath.

A few weeks ago, Zahra and his friends declared "Freedom Graffiti Week." The Facebook page calls their work a mix of civil disobedience and peaceful expression.

On April 29, Zahra was going from neighborhood to neighborhood with his spray paint, jumping from car to car. He sped through a checkpoint for fear of being discovered. Security forces shot him in the leg.

His friends and fellow activists say he bled to death. He was later filmed on a dark stairwell, his body stiff, his eyes still open. They called him a martyr. The body was washed, shrouded in white and covered with flowers.

Video of the funeral posted online shows that mourners came by the hundreds to the funeral. They carried palm fronds and danced around the ones who held his body aloft. Most of them were young men in skinny jeans and baseball hats. They sang prayers for Zahra and his family.

"Mother of the martyr," they said. "We are your children now."

Just beyond the crowd, there's a handful of thugs carrying very large guns. They're not wearing uniforms, but they work for the government. But for the guns, they look like the men at the funeral.

Their message is clear: Don't take this any further. Don't take this out of the neighborhood.

Then, like so many of the amateur videos coming out of Syria, the footage of Zahra's funeral just stops.

The next day, there's another one: another funeral, another boy covered in flowers, another video.

Lava Selo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week, the news out of Syria has been about explosions and attacks, and whether or not a U.N. peace plan will work. At the same time, there is still a nonviolent movement protesting the regime.

NPR's Kelly McEvers has been following events in Syria. And this week, she came across photos of a funeral for one protester, a young graffiti artist named Nour.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: They called him "The Spray Man" but really, he was just an activist like any other activist. He started protesting in Syria last spring. Back then, everybody thought it would only take a few months to get rid of the president, just like in Tunisia and Egypt.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

MCEVERS: Then Syrian forces started killing protesters, detaining them, torturing them. And the people started fighting back. And now - well, the whole thing has gotten pretty complicated.

But still, there was Nour and his friends - organizing protests, hiding activists from the dreaded security forces, ferrying medical supplies to those who were injured but terrified to go to a government hospital.

Then late last year, Nour got caught. Under torture, one of his friends had given up his name - Nour later forgave the guy. He was locked up for 56 days. As soon as he got out, he was at it again. He and his friends went around spraying the suburbs of Syria's capital, Damascus, with slogans against the Syrian president: Down With The Traitor, To The Trash Heap Of History; pictures of the president with the word "pig" scrawled underneath.

A few weeks ago, Nour and his friends declared Freedom Graffiti Week. The Facebook page calls their work a mix of civil disobedience and peaceful expression. It all sounds so harmless but in Syria, it can get you killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

MCEVERS: This past Sunday, Nour was going from neighborhood to neighborhood with his spray paint, jumping from car to car. He sped through a checkpoint, for fear of being discovered. He was shot in the leg by security forces. All we know is that he bled to death.

He was later filmed on a dark stairwell, his body stiff, his eyes still open. They called him a martyr. The body was washed, and shrouded in white, and covered with flowers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

MCEVERS: They came by the hundreds to the funeral. They carried palm fronds, and danced around the ones who held his body aloft. Most of them were just dudes - young ones, in skinny jeans and baseball hats. They sang prayers for Nour and his family.

Mother of the martyr, they said, we are your children now.

Just beyond the crowd, you see a handful of thugs with really big guns. They're not wearing uniforms, but they work for the government. They look just like the dudes at the funeral. Their message is clear: Don't take this any further. Don't take this out of the neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

MCEVERS: Then, like so many of these videos that we get out of Syria, the footage of Nour's funeral just stops. The next day, there's another one; another funeral, another boy covered in flowers, another video. We sit in the office and watch. And then, we go on to the next thing.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut.

SIEGEL: Lava Selo contributed to that report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.