"Arab Hospitality." Image from author's archive.
Jadaliyya, June 16, 2011
[The below post was sent to us by an author that has asked to remain anonymous and only identified as Hamwia due to safety considerations regarding relatives in Hama and other parts of Syria.]
A young man, studying medicine, was alone in his apartment. When the soldiers barged into his house he proclaimed his Christian faith, assuring them that he was not their enemy. It mattered not. He then became defensive, berating their boorish behavior. He was answered with a whack on the head with the butt of a rifle. Knocked down, he watched the soldiers loot the apartment, snatching all the money and jewelry they could get their hands on. Pursuing higher education, he was the exception amongst his siblings and cousins. His was a family of jewelers. Their small shops were among the dozens in the jewelry market in the center of town. During the siege, shop owners dared not leave their homes. Soldiers broke into every store, into every safe, and swept up all the gold. Along with the jewels, livelihoods were lost. This is a story passed down to me from Hama. It arrived to me by word of mouth, twenty-nine years later.
A young girl faces the camera and relates her story. She is at a demonstration in a suburb outside of Damascus, and in the background is a group of women clad in niqabs. She may be at one of the demonstrations held by women and children only – a method intended to demonstrate the nonviolent and popular nature of the uprisings. The girl speaks quickly and pauses to catch her breath periodically, but she never seems to blink. And with the last grain of innocence that may be left in her, she says the armed men must have left their homes hungry. That, she explains, is why they came in and looted her family’s house and stole their jewels and money. I accessed this story on YouTube, only days after it occurred last month.
For years, the tension had been building up. The tactics of the Brotherhood were becoming cruel and homicidal. The father of a family friend was a cardiologist, perhaps the most respected professor in the medical school of the University of Damascus. He was so good he treated the ruling family. And then one day he was assassinated. While living in Syria I made the acquaintance of a literary translator. Since he was a child, he was handicap, left to navigate the potholes and degraded sidewalks of Damascus by wheelchair. That is because a member of the Brotherhood shot him in the back. The intended target was his father, who worked in a government ministry, but the bullet missed. He told me his story after living in paralysis for nearly three decades.
Earlier this year, Syrians witnessed their neighbors rise up against dictatorial regimes. Some were emboldened. So emboldened, that they sprayed anti-regime graffiti and slogans on a wall in Deraa, a southern town near the Jordanian border. The perpetrators – 15 teenage boys – were swiftly arrested, detained, and tortured. The boys’ neighbors rose up in protest. People in nearby towns did the same, and soon the whole city was part of the movement. Syrians in other cities bore witness to the courage of ahl Deraa, the people of Deraa. And so it spread. It is not unlikely that some of the opposition is armed, and maybe even funded by regime opponents abroad. But given the severity of the security state for all these years, is it not an inconceivable admission of weakness to claim that they are all foreign infiltrators? Maybe they have not read about the men demonstrating with bare chests to display their lack of arms. They have probably not seen the videos of demonstrators holding olive branches, nor those of people chanting "peaceful, peaceful," as they march through the streets. But they will.
It all happened so suddenly, it is hard to even recall how it started. So I am told by a man who will be 90 years old next year. He acknowledges that the akhwan, the [Muslim] Brotherhood, had taken virtual control of Hama for three days. But he says they didn’t bother anyone; they didn’t even enter the Christian street, he exclaims. (Not that we like them, he concedes.) Then it began. The army cordoned off the city, proscribing any movement in or out. They went in on tanks and seized control of each neighborhood, and then every street. Electricity was cut and people were shuttered in their homes. Meanwhile, they demolished houses, mosques, churches, and stores. The siege was not only physical. Information itself was besieged. Even now, the inhabitants of the city do not have a comprehensive understanding of what took place.
Five weeks after the residents of Deraa rose up against the regime, they also fell under total siege. The army entered on tanks and armored personnel carriers and planted snipers on the buildings. They forbade movement and gatherings in the streets, and opened fire on anyone who ventured out. Electricity and the internet were cut. Apparently, water tanks were shot into, depriving Deraa’s residents of the most basic sustenance. Mosques were raided and desecrated. Aid workers and ambulances were turned away, along with medical and food supplies. Journalists did not have a chance of reaching Deraa. Yet thanks to modern technology and simple phone lines, in 2011 we are all witnesses.
It was a massacre, a massacre executed by the forces of Rifaat Al-Asad, the president’s younger brother. They would go into all the houses and pull out the men sheltered inside. Once they had twenty or thirty of them lined up against a wall outside, they murdered them. In front of their families, they killed them all. Of course it was not only the akhwan who they killed. They killed so many people – it seemed like they killed everyone in Hama. They did so with no remorse.
These [italicized excerpts] are the stories relayed to me by one woman from Hama. They are the stories of every Hamwi, every person from Hama, passed to every relation. Estimates of those killed range from ten to forty thousand.
In Deraa and across the country, a shoot-to-kill policy has been executed by security forces, foremost by those under the direction of Maher Al-Asad, the current president’s younger brother. Weekends are the bloodiest: on Fridays, the demonstrators emerge en masse following the mid-day prayer; on Saturdays, they congregate at funeral processions for Friday’s casualties. This past Friday, over seventy Hamwis died. Today the people of Jisr Al-Shughour are bracing themselves. Estimates of those killed since the uprisings began are over one thousand. Unlike 1982, armed forces are shooting those courageous individuals coming out onto the streets, not pulling each one out of his home. The number of those detained is purportedly over ten thousand. The stories of the detainees – of the mental and physical torture, the humiliation and degradation, rape and death – are told to all who care to watch or listen. Outrage reached a new apex with the release of the video of Hamza Al-Khateeb, a thirteen-year-old detained and brutally tortured to death. Hamza’s name is now known by all in the region.
There are some important similarities between the events of 1982 and those of 2011. The most important one is that the regime is maintaining its grip on power through sheer force. There are also great differences, including in the nature of the opposition movements. My grandfather laments that people eventually forgot about Hama. That's what time does, he tells me. How 2011 will close is unclear. But this time there are enough witnesses to prevent memory from forgetting one victim: the regime's legitimacy.