Atrocities haunt Hama survivors 30 years on

AFP , Thursday 2 Feb 2012

The rsidents of the Syrian city of Hama recount the atrocities carried out by the Assad regime 30 years ago, still resounding more loudly than ever as history repeats itself

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Rehab Ahmed, from Hama who fled to Jordan in 1982, holds pictures of her brother and father in Amman, July (Photo: Reuters)

Fawaz vividly recalls that cold rainy day 30 years ago when Syria's then president Hafez al-Assad launched a ruthless assault to crush an Islamist uprising in the city of Hama, killing thousands.

"The troops entered my neighbourhood and gathered all males above the age of 15 in one of the town's squares," said the 49-year-old who now lives in Saudi Arabia but still travels back to his hometown in central Syria.

"They showered us with insults, accusing us of being traitors and Israeli agents ... and then told us that everyone would be massacred."

Fawaz was lucky to survive but, according to rights groups, between 10,000 and 40,000 people perished during the subsequent 27-day military campaign on Hama, the worst atrocity in Syria's modern history.

For survivors like Fawaz, this year's 30th anniversary of the massacre holds special meaning amid an unprecedented revolt aimed at toppling the regime of Assad's son and successor, President Bashar al-Assad.

The current regime's fierce crackdown on the uprising that began last March has left more than 6,000 people dead, according to rights groups.

"What is happening today is the same heartless savagery," Fawaz told AFP in a telephone interview, his voice quivering with emotion.

He said the horrors he witnessed three decades ago and the fear that gripped him were still etched in his memory and had come flooding back amid the current unrest sweeping his homeland.

"There were bloated bodies lying in the streets and set upon by stray dogs," he recalled.

"They forced a man to kneel and pressed his head to the ground and told us to reveal the whereabouts of members of the Muslim Brotherhood or they would kill him," he added.

"But we had no information to give them so they crushed his head by running over it with a tank.

"They instilled so much fear that no one in Syria dared speak out (against the regime) after that."

Fawaz said that like most of the town's 250,000 residents at the time, he lost several family members, friends and neighbours during the month-long onslaught.

And yet the carnage went largely unnoticed by the outside world because of a news blackout imposed by the regime, well before the era of the Internet and mobile phones.

Many of the casualties had no relation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Abu Khaled, another survivor who was 16 at the time of the massacre, remembers seeing security forces gun down the town's male population indiscriminately.

"Before shooting them, they removed their watches and shoes," said Abu Khaled, who now lives in Jordan.

He said he managed to escape by jumping on rooftops and then walked for three days before reaching the town of Homs, south of Hama.

Leading the ground and aerial campaign at the time was Rifaat al-Assad, the then president's younger brother who now lives in exile in Britain. Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son.

"The regime through this massacre sought to teach the whole country a lesson," said Mohamed Sarmini, a native of Hama and member of the opposition Syrian National Council seeking the ouster of the current regime.

"In the 1980s it was a battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government, but today the regime is battling a nationwide revolt," he added.

Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, who covered the Hama massacre in 1982, said it must be noted that Hafez al-Assad was responding to a sustained uprising by the Brotherhood when he unleashed his forces on the city.

"This is not something that happened out of the blue," he told AFP. "There is no excuse for killing thousands of civilians, we are on the side of human rights, but history must say that it was not just a one-sided story only.

"Many members of the (ruling) Baath party and their families were murdered ... including the president's doctor."

For activists leading the current 10-month revolt, history is unlikely to repeat itself. They say the Assad dynasty is not likely to survive the current revolt which they hope will usher in a new era for the country.

"They are trying to make us relive the fear but we won't give in," said prominent Syrian dissident Anwar al-Bunni. "Hama is a wound that will heal only if those responsible go to trial."

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