Thirty years ago, one of the bloodiest episodes in modern Middle East history unfolded as an anti-government uprising began in the Syrian city of Hama, and was met almost immediately with overwhelming government force.
Over the course of February 1982, an estimated 10,000 to 40,000 people died in the city that was not only cut off from the rest of Syria, but the outside world as well. When it ended, Syrian President Hafez Assad said, “What’s happened in Hama has happened. And now it’s all over.”
But it’s not over. Syrians are rising up again, this time against President Bashar Assad, the son of Hafez Assad.
Since 1982, most Syrians have rarely if ever spoken about Hama. The walls have ears, Syrians would say, even in the privacy of their own homes. If we talk about what happened in Hama, they might come for us and kill us too.
But now that’s changing.
Recalling The Violence
Abu Basil was 14-years-old on the night of Feb. 2, 1982. It was almost dawn by the time he heard the first gunshots. Militants from the Muslim Brotherhood in a neighborhood not far from his were the fighting government troops, led by Assad’s brother Rifaat.
Abu Basil heard explosions, the whizzing of rockets. He saw helicopters landing in the city’s main stadium. Snipers positioned themselves on rooftops. Phone lines were cut. Soldiers went from house to house, interrogating men and taking them away.
Abu Basil’s schoolmate was taken to a nearby university and beaten and tortured for three days. Abu Basil’s uncle, Abu Abdu, was hauled out of his house with six other men in broad daylight.
Abu Abdu says one soldier felt sorry for him because he was short and thin. So he let him go. Later, when Abu Abdu came back outside, the six men who had been hauled out with him were dead in the street. And dogs were feeding on their corpses.
Abu Basil’s little brother fell ill, so they took him to the hospital. The hospital turned the family away. They passed the hospital morgue on the way out the door.
He saw the bodies of more than 30 men who were dressed like simple farmers, discarded and left in a pile.
The detentions and killings lasted nearly a month. Abu Basil’s family fled Hama for several weeks. When they came back, Abu Basil saw that large swaths of the city had been flattened.
Fleeing To Lebanon
Abu Basil stayed in Hama, where for years he worked as a criminal lawyer. When Syrians began rising up against the government last spring, Abu Basil says he was with the protesters in spirit, but not in body.
Until recently, Abu Basil was part of the so-called silent majority in Syria — the millions of people who’ve stayed at home while protests rage in the streets and the government violently cracks down.
But just last week, government security forces were attacking Abu Basil’s neighborhood in Hama when a bullet ripped through his kitchen, where his wife had been standing just minutes before.
That’s when Abu Basil decided it was time for him, his wife and four kids to leave Syria. They came here to northern Lebanon — and start talking.
“This regime is a facade,” Abu Basil says. “Now that we’ve broken our wall of fear, there’s no turning back.”
Syrian Exiles Speak Out
A few hours away by car, in the notorious Shatila slum in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, a kind of Syrian wives club has assembled around little cups of bitter black coffee. They joke about how, after two uprisings, there are no men left to marry in Hama.
Umm Abdallah was 6-years-old when the massacre started. Two of her cousins and her uncles were taken away. Her cousins were jailed for 13 years. Her uncles never came home.
“We never talked about this,” says Um Nour, who is also from Hama but recently fled to Lebanon. “Now that the regime is killing and detaining our men again, you can’t shut us up. We’re on our rooftops, shouting, yelling, banging pots and pans, whatever we have. Now we say whatever we want.”
For perhaps the first time ever, ceremonies in cities around the world will publicly commemorate the Hama massacre in the coming days.
Inside Syria, protesters have vowed to take to the streets in great numbers, but the security forces have put Hama on lockdown.
When Abu Basil is asked why it’s only now that the wall of fear has been broken, he turned his eyes to the sky and thanked the young Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in December 2010 and sparked the uprisings that have swept the Arab world.
“Thank you, Bouazizi,” Abu Basil says to the heavens. “Thank you Bouazizi. Thank you Tunisia.”