In Scarred Syria City, a Vision of a Life Free From Dictators
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
July 19, 2011
HAMA, Syria — In this city that bears the scars of one of the modern Middle East’s bloodiest episodes, the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad has begun to help Syrians imagine life after dictatorship as it forges new leaders, organizes its own defense and reckons with a grim past in an uncertain experiment that showcases the forces that could end Mr. Assad’s rule.
Dozens of barricades of trash bins, street lamps, bulldozers and sandbags, defended in various states of vigilance, block the feared return of the security forces that surprisingly withdrew last month. Protests begin past midnight, drawing raucous crowds of youths celebrating the simple fact that they can protest. At dusk, distant cries echo off cinder blocks and stone that render a tableau here of jubilation, fear and memory of a crackdown a generation ago whose toll — 10,000, 20,000, more — remains a defiant guess.
“Hama is free,” the protesters chant, “and it will remain free.”
Freedom is a word heard often these days in this city, Syria’s fourth largest, though that freedom could yet prove elusive. Hama rebelled last month, and the government withdrew the soldiers and security forces seemingly to forestall even more bloodshed, ceding space along the Orontes River that is really neither liberated nor subjugated.
In the uncertain interregnum, punctuated by worry that the security forces might return and fear of informers left behind, Hama has emerged in the four-month revolt against Mr. Assad as a turbulent model of what a city in Syria might resemble once four decades of dictatorship end. In skittish streets, there are at least nascent notions of self-de-termination, as residents seek to speak for themselves and defend a city that they declare theirs.
The sole poster of Mr. Assad in the city hangs from the undamaged headquarters of the ruling Baath Party. Gaggles of residents gather on the curb to debate politics, sing protest songs and retell the traumas of the crackdown in 1982, when the government stormed Hama to end an Islamist uprising. For the first time in memory, clerics and the educated elite in Hama are negotiating with the governor over how to administer the city, in a country long accustomed to a monologue delivered by the ruler to the ruled.
“This is the way a city is supposed to be,” said a 49-year-old former government employee who gave his name as Abu Muhammad. Like many people here, he declined to be fully identified.
Lined with oleander and eucalyptus trees, the road to Hama underlines the depth of the challenge today to Mr. Assad. Tanks are parked inside Homs, to the south. More are stationed at the entrances to smaller towns in between Homs and Hama — Talbiseh and Rastan, where protesters dismantled a statue of Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, who seized power in 1970. At one entrance, strewn with stones thrown by protesters, a slogan says, “The army and the people are one hand.” But the scenes of jittery soldiers behind sandbags and turrets of tanks pointed at incoming traffic suggest an army of occupation.
“Syria is colonized by its own sons,” one resident quipped.
Hama is bracing for an attack by a government that may regret its decision to withdraw on the first week of June, after an especially bloody Friday. But the authorities seem at a loss over how to retake control of the rebellious city that is Syria’s most religiously conservative. Railing from fences was torn down and stones from sidewalks unearthed to build scores of barricades, which block entrances to most neighborhoods. Refuse has accumulated along streets where every trash bin seems part of a barrier.
Youths have distributed bags of rocks to the checkpoints, and some, too young to shave, carry bars and sticks. Others sneak cigarettes, away from disapproving parents. A banner in Jerajmeh Square seemed to plead their case: “Here is Hama. It is not Tel Aviv” — a reference to Syria’s avowed enemy, Israel.
“Of course, we know the regime can enter any time,” said a 30-year-old carpenter with a goatee and blue eyes who gave his name as Abdel-Razzaq. He shrugged his shoulders at the prospect. “So the battle will happen,” he said. “What can we do about it?”
Even as they celebrate Hama’s measure of freedom, residents elsewhere have wondered what motivated the government to withdraw its forces from Hama. Some suggest foreign pressure, others point to Hama’s demographics. Unlike Homs, Hama has no Alawite minority, the heterodox Muslim sect from which the country’s leadership draws much of its support. The city’s small Christian population seems wary, but unharried.
A City’s Painful Past
But most believe the key lies in Hama’s past, quoting a refrain heard almost any time the city’s name is mentioned.
“Hama is wounded,” it goes.
Under the orders of Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian Army quelled the revolt in 1982 with a brutality that defined his later rule. He ended the rebellion, but the ferocity forever changed his leadership, ushering forth a suspicion and paranoia that still dominates his family’s politics. The three weeks of fighting left behind a graveyard in this city, too. Planes bombed Hama’s historic quarter, and tanks plowed through narrow streets. Mass executions were routine, as was torture visited on survivors.
“Hama is the cemetery of the nation,” say graffiti here.
“Every house has martyrs,” said a 25-year-old petroleum engineer who gave his name as Adnan. Others joined him, sitting in plastic chairs on the curb, sipping tea.
Seventeen had died on their street, named after Sheik Mustafa al-Hamid, Adnan and others said. Many of the children playing soccer nearby bore the names of the dead. One recalled his uncle Mahmoud, who he said was shot 24 times and survived, though badly crippled. “He looked like a strainer,” he said. A pharmacist said he never heard from his cousin, Othman, again.
“Their sons and grandsons are doing the protests today,” Abu Muhammad, the former government employee, said.
On successive Fridays since the government pulled out its forces, the protests in Assi Square — renamed Martyrs’ Square — have grown as quickly as fear crumbled, reaching more than 100,000 this month. Songs like “Get Out Bashar” were taken up by protesters in other cities and, by Syria’s standards, became a YouTube sensation.
In President’s Square, the government dismantled a statue of Hafez al-Assad on June 10. The next day, residents recalled, a man nicknamed Gilamo put his donkey on the pedestal. Hundreds gathered, clapping, in mock displays of obsequiousness.
“Oh, youth of Damascus, we in Hama overthrew the regime,” residents recalled them chanting. “We removed Hafez, and we put a donkey in his place.”
Several residents said the security forces shot the donkey a few days later.
In the vacuum, new leaders have begun to emerge, sometimes coexisting uneasily in a city that seems to be staggering into the unknown. Youthful protesters have come together in a group called the Free Ones of Hama, but it is more a name than an organization. Their real work, activists say, happens in their own neighborhoods, where they organize shifts to defend barricades, persuade their mothers to cook stuffed squash for their friends and relentlessly document the uprising with cameras, cellphones and camcorders.
No security troops can come close, they declare, without their streets sounding the alarm, erupting in cries of “God is great,” the chorus joined by a cacophony of banging pots and pans.
“The fear has been broken,” said Adnan, one of the protest leaders.
The protesters, though, hold little sway with the government, which has negotiated with the city to a surprising degree. These days, Hama is represented by Mustafa Abdel-Rahman, the 60-year-old cleric in charge of the Serjawi Mosque. Residents say he consults with worshipers at his mosque, along with doctors, lawyers and engineers in the neighborhoods, over ways to defuse tension. Under the latest deal, the government agreed to release prisoners if protesters dismantled checkpoints on the main roads. The protesters did, though in the end, only a fraction of the more than 1,200 detainees were freed.
“They will keep taking people, definitely,” said Tarek, a 22-year-old protester. “We can’t trust them. We just can’t trust them anymore.”
A Revolt’s Microcosm
Over these six weeks, Hama has, in a way, emerged as a microcosm of the revolt — what the protesters see as competing visions of liberation and what the government labels chaos.
As in other places, the government has spoken of armed gangs and Islamists roaming the city’s streets, though over two days, not a single weapon was seen, save a slingshot. Islamists populate and perhaps dominate the ranks of protesters, and by some estimates, a fourth of the city has fled, fearing a showdown more than the brand of rule the Islamists might impose.
The government has spoken of losing control, though the city still functions. Shops have reopened, people walk the streets, and the municipal administration — from courts to trash collection — began working again Saturday after a two-week strike. Gardeners watered city squares, and cars obeyed traffic signals along streets where not a single government building was damaged beyond a few broken windows. Although the security forces have disappeared — all 16 branches of them, by some residents’ count — the traffic police still come to work.
“You don’t feel secure unless the security forces are gone,” Abu Muhammad said.
But episodes of lawlessness and vengeance have punctuated the city’s experiment. An informer was hanged from an electricity pylon last month; the bodies of three or four others were thrown into the Orontes River, residents say. A week ago, three Korean-made cars were stolen from a dealership, residents said, and some businessmen have complained about the checkpoints and a two-week strike that shut down Hama. Many frowned upon the dismantling of street lights and other infrastructure to build the barriers.
“There was no destruction with the protests, why does there have to be with the checkpoints?” asked a 40-year-old trader who gave his name as Ahmed. “Without a doubt, people are angry. I am myself. There are thugs out there, without question.”
At least anecdotally, his seemed to be a minority opinion.
The scenes on Saturday night were less chaotic than festive, as crowds lined the streets to watch a spontaneous protest celebrating the freedom of the few prisoners released. The demonstrators headed to the governor’s building, which was adorned in a slogan that still said “Assad’s Syria.” Youths jumped in their cars, speeding through pulsating streets, trading rumors and news over cellphones that rang incessantly. They joked with one another at checkpoints.
“Next time I see you, we’ll be playing cards together in jail,” one said.
Around midnight, a protester named Obada joined his friends in what seemed to be a cross between a dorm room and a safe house. The coals for water pipes smoldered in the corner, near computers, headphones, a big-screen television, a scanner, sound-mixing equipment and stacks of compact discs documenting protests, arrests and clashes with the security forces.
Each took a turn to celebrate what their uprising meant.
“There’s no fear,” said Mustafa, 27.
“You can walk in the streets with security,” added his friend, Mahmoud.
“We’ve come closer together,” volunteered Fadi, typing on his computer.
Another friend, Bassem, shook his head. “We’re not free yet,” he said.