HAMA’S GHOSTS (from The New Yorker)


Posted by Leen Zyiad

The author is writing under a pseudonym.

Hama haunts us Syrians; Hama shaped our fear. Every Syrian knows the story of Hama; every Syrian learned the lesson of Hama. In 1982, when the regime fought the Muslim Brotherhood, they shelled Hama, destroying large parts of the city and killing over ten thousand civilians, according to Amnesty International. (Other estimates are even higher.) The message was simple: This is what happens when you defy us. That was the lesson, and every Syrian seemed to abide by it for almost three decades. Hardly anyone objected.

But Hama reshaped us, earlier last month, when an estimated five hundred thousand of the eight hundred thousand people living there took to Al-Assi Square to chant for freedom and call for an end to the Assad regime. It was the biggest protest in Syria so far, the protest that dazzled Syria and the world, and convinced those who still had doubts that change must be coming in Syria. For the next month, the Army surrounded the city, and every Friday—and almost every night—the crowds chanted for freedom peacefully.

Then, last week, the Army moved in, and invaded Hama. On August 3rd, communication with the city cut. Activists said that the city was witnessing heavy shooting and shelling. Syrian authorities took local journalists and the Turkish ambassador to Hama on Wednesday to prove they had restored peace to a city that was crawling with armed groups. However, the expedition was tightly controlled by the authorities, and all that could be seen in the scarce footage from there were burnt buildings and crushed cars.

When I visited Hama couple of years ago, a woman I am going to call Souad said to me, “Every house lost a father, a son, or a brother.” Her husband said, “We don’t forget, and the world doesn’t seem to remember or even know.” They were talking in a low voice, though no one else was in the room. Souad seemed to trust me, but fear has become the foundation of this city and its residents.

Souad’s voice was almost broken when I finally reached her about a week ago. “Well, we are dying yet again, but at least, I thank God, the world is hearing about us this time!”

She had been on the balcony of her house that overlooks Al-Assi Square on June 3rd. She described seeing thousands and thousands marching and calling for freedom. “I was breathless. Justice at last!” Souad said. “Suddenly, a sharp voice echoed; I saw the men in the front rows falling—tens of men falling, it was as absurd as watching a Pif-Paf bug-spray advertisement, only for men. Men shouldn’t fall in these numbers, not so easily.”

Then Souad froze; it suddenly hit her. She had been a teen-ager when the massacre took place in 1982. Her family house had overlooked the Orantes, the river that snakes its way through Hama; she saw what happened from her window, which was open a crack. Even today, she feels hollow when she remembers her neighbors’ sons being escorted down to the river bank, forced to stand in a row, and shot.

My nineteen-year-old is there today, she thought. He is among the protesters. “I couldn’t breathe, I just stood there and shouted his name: Mustafa, Mustafa! Souad’s voice must have been lost in the midst of the echoing shooting and the sound of thousands of men screaming and running.

Mustafa was running, too. “ ‘You killed him—you animals,’ the man next to me was screaming,” Mustafa said later. “I couldn’t stop to help. I couldn’t think of anything but wanting to escape. But my heart was burning with anger. We were carrying flowers for you—why, why would you find it so easy to kill us?”

Mustafa couldn’t look back, couldn’t see which of his friends were shot or injured. He made it home to a mother who was frantic and crying. Once her son was there, Souad composed herself enough to get on the phone and check on relatives and friends. But her tears didn’t stop, and neither did the shooting. “I was worrying about all of us—Hama—I started remembering the faces of our friends and dear ones who were in the protest. But suddenly the ghosts of the past came—the faces of our neighbors who were shot in ’82. A bitter and sad anger sat heavy in my heart.”

It was hours before she reached Mustafa’s uncle. “They are abducting the injured, they are shooting the abducted!” he shouted on the phone. Mustafa’s uncle had rushed to the Medical center to donate blood, along with many of his neighbors. They heard that security services had raided the medical center earlier, and taken away the injured, so they stood to protect the civilians hospitalized there. Hundreds formed a circle around the medical center, and around Al-Hourani hospital.

Over a hundred and twenty people were killed that day, and hundreds wounded, according to activists in Syria. Mustafa’s friends told him later that they saw an injured man being struck by the security services until he was dead. This time around, though, Hama was defending its own sons; Hama was not going to sit and watch as its own were killed.

At first, their will seemed to pay off: after the mass funerals, security services appeared to withdraw from the city. An ever growing number of people demanded the overthrow of the regime, and Hama became a symbol of the Syrian people’s uprising. The tens of thousands became hundreds of the thousands. Early in the morning the next Friday, July 10th, municipal authorities removed the statue of Hafez Al-Assad, the current President’s father, who had ordered the 1982 massacre. It had become too difficult to protect it from protesters who wanted to tear it down, as they had done in Daraa, in southern Syria, and in many other small towns. The move was also read as an attempt by the regime to avoid clashes and confrontations.

“It was like a national festival,” Mustafa, who heard the word of what happened to the statue at 9 A.M., said. “People were celebrating in the streets all day long, until almost four in the morning.” Mustafa was moved most of all by the sight of a single man, who looked over seventy years old. His back was bent, and he was carrying a photograph of his son, who had been killed on June 3rd. He was sobbing: “God is great—freedom—freedom.” Protesters carried the man to where the statue was, lifted him up while he held his son’s picture higher, and chanted, “We would sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Martyr.” Thousands of voices joined in, addressing every mother and father who lost a child in Hama.

“The essence of Syria and its revolution for freedom is Hama,” one political activist from the city said. The Syrian regime never acknowledged the crisis, or its people’s quest for freedom, or the violence committed by its forces and the irregular militias allied with it, known in Syria as the Shabiha. Syrian activists estimate that over two thousand have been killed for calling an end to the Bashar Al-Assad era, and over fifteen thousand arrested and tortured; three thousand are listed as disappeared. “When you get over half a million people in the streets in Hama with not one life lost when the security forces are absent—not one governmental building ruined—then the claims of the Syrian regime prove simply false and the world sees this for what it is: a people’s peaceful revolution.”

The Syrian official media has talked about “road blocks” set by the armed groups that are terrorizing the citizens and preventing them from going to their jobs, forcing a total closure in the city. “But it is a civil disobedience,” said Souad cheerfully; she likes trying out that phrase. “And, yes, our young men are blocking the roads with tires and garbage containers to prevent the security forces from moving in and arresting all of them, or even worse—killing many of us!”

The Army started mobilizing on July 31st. An assault carried out three days later, just a day before the holy month of Ramadan, resulted in over a hundred killed in the city, according to activists. Opponents of the Syrian regime called for massive protests every evening after the evening prayer, known as Tarawih, that is performed only in Ramadan. They are challenging the regime’s version of events; they say Hama is still in the grip of security forces and the Army. It is hard to get a clear image of the level of the damage and loss. However, Syrians are afraid that it is Hama all over again, a new massacre, only this time the world is watching—even if, so far, its silence is deafening.

When the protests broke out in Syria, Hama was shy, small, and easily dispersed. Protests of no more than few hundred took place, and every Syrian I know said, “It is O.K., Hama will be the very last; it is our duty to rise for them.” Hama, however, has risen. Thousands and thousands more marched in the streets, one Friday after another. “Cursed be your soul, Hafez!” That was the call first sounded in Hama one Friday. The following Friday, those words were repeated throughout Syria. The echo of the blow the city had borne was finally being heard. Every city and town chanted for them.

After the Army moved in, I couldn’t reach Souad. The phones were dead; her relatives in Damascus were frantic but had no news for days. Then I got a call saying that she had made it out on what she described to her relatives as one of the darkest days of her life. One of them told me that she had talked of how there was “nothing but shooting and sounds of explosions, no water, no electricity.” Without refrigeration, in the summer heat, food spoiled, and so they lived on bread and pasta, “and fear.” She told them she had wondered if the security forces would break in at any moment. Their house is near Al-Assi square, which was filled with tanks, and so it was impossible simply to put everyone in a car and drive away. They had to walk to the outskirts of the city to get a car, but the distance was too great for Souad’s mother-in-law, who was over eighty and could hardly walk. The older woman, haunted by the memories of murder in her city, insisted that her family leave her behind and get somewhere safe. And so they did, and walked among tanks and past security checkpoints that had long lists of people to be arrested, to the sound of sporadic shooting.

The New Yorker

Comments are closed.


Discover more from Middle East Transparent

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading