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In death, a 13-year-old becomes a symbol of Syrian opposition

By Arwa Damon, CNN
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Child a symbol of Syrian uprising
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The body of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, 13, shows horrible injuries in a YouTube video
  • "They want the people to see this, they want the people to get scared," an activist says
  • Instead, people "got angrier," says the activist, who is in hiding in Syria
  • Syrian state TV: The medical examiner says there was no evidence of torture

(CNN) -- The translation of the voice below the macabre YouTube video clip reads, "Look at the bruises on his face along with his broken neck." The clip is a two and a half minute gruesome catalogue of wounds on a 13-year-old child's body.

The body of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb.

On April 29, demonstrators from villages surrounding Daraa, Syria, marched on the city in an attempt to break the Syrian military siege there. Their intent was to bring in much-needed supplies, including milk for babies and crucial medicines. At the time, the crackdown on Daraa was so intense eyewitnesses spoke of bodies bloating in the streets and the injured being treated at makeshift secret clinics to avoid detection by the Syrian security forces.

On that day, eyewitnesses say, security forces fired indiscriminately on them, killing and wounding dozens. Countless others were detained in a mass roundup.

Among them, says his family, was Hamza. He got separated from his father in the chaos.

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A month later, the family received his body. The video was taken at that time by a relative, the family says.

Much of the video of the child's corpse is too graphic to broadcast. His face is bloated and purple. His body is covered in bruises. There are gunshot wounds to his torso and his genitals are mutilated.

CNN cannot independently verify what happened to Hamza or the authenticity of the video.

Hamza's family was threatened after the video was initially broadcast by other outlets, intermediaries told CNN, and they became too petrified to talk about what happened, even to close friends.

Razan Zaitouneh, a prominent activist in hiding in Syria who CNN reached via Skype, said she has no doubt that it is real. And she believes that the regime had a message in releasing the boy's body.

"They want the people to see this, they want the people to get scared," Zaitouneh said. "They want the people to know that there is no red line and anything, no matter how awful it is, could happen to their family members if they continue to participate in this revolution."

But far from terrorizing people, the video appears to have made them only bolder.

People "got angrier. Every family, every single family in Syria felt, even if they were not directly with the revolution, they felt that Hamza is their own son," Zaitouneh explained.

More demonstrations erupted across Syria, with crowds chanting Hamza's name.

According to the video posted on YouTube, men in the Damascus countryside chanted, "Faithful brothers, do not forget that your sons could become Hamza al-Khateeb," while in central Syria demonstrators chanted, "With our blood and our souls we will defend you Hamza"

Even children took to the streets, risking a similar fate, vowing that Hamza's blood was not spilled in vain.

In reaction, Syrian state TV on Tuesday ran a segment in which a person identified as the medical examiner in the case said the body's injuries were sustained when the boy was alive, but there was no evidence on the surface of the body that the boy had been subjected to torture, violence or retaliation.

The medical examiner said proper procedures to identify the body were followed after the body first arrived, and went on to describe how a body deteriorates in phases after death, turning dark brown, for example, with parts becoming enlarged.

The boy's death, he said, was the result of the three gunshot wounds he sustained.

Syria TV also said al-Assad met with members of Hamza's family on Tuesday, and it showed men it identified as the boy's father and uncle, who said that al-Assad was very welcoming and understanding, and promised reform.

But in Washington, the reports about Hamza's fate drew strong words from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. In response to a question about Syria from CNN, she said she was "very concerned with reports about the young boy."

"In fact, I think what 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. "... I can only hope that this child did not die in vain, but that the Syrian government will end the brutality and begin the transition to a real democracy."

She added, "Every day that goes by the position of the government becomes less tenable and the demands of the Syrian people only grow stronger."

Activists say they are not surprised that the regime could have committed the kind of cruelty the YouTube video allegedly shows, and they claim that it is not the first time a child has been targeted.

Another video posted to YouTube claims to show an 11-year-old child who was shot in his home. Another clip shows people trying to recover the body of a child in a street amid intense gunfire. And another shows children lying wounded in a hospital after security forces allegedly fired on their bus.

Activists say these types of atrocities have been committed against the population for decades now by a regime that doesn't differentiate between ages.

The difference now, they say, is that it is being talked about.

Hamza's death has prompted an international outrage. A Facebook page calling itself "We are all the martyr, the child Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb" had 60,000 followers by Tuesday.

The face of this 13-year-old from a village in southern Syria is now the symbol of an uprising.

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