Monday, February 02, 2009

Hama: the whisper of a memory

An entire city was almost exterminated on a day like this, twenty seven years ago...while the Arab world looks over with astonishment and anger at the death and destruction which has struck Gaza, the people of another city will today be reflecting on a similar calamity that befell them but was many times greater. It is estimated by the Syrian Human Rights Commission that almost 40,000 of the people of Hama were killed during the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood's uprising. Large swathes of the historic part of the city were completely obliterated, including mosques and churches. We have read reports by Patrick Seale, Robert Fisk and Thomas Friedman (of all people), but the human element has always been missing. Over the years I have spoken to many about what happened there and how the massacre affected them. Here are some first hand accounts from ordinary people who were there at the time - though I have changed their names to keep them anonymous:
Zayd: I was a little boy at the time, raised by my grandmother. One morning we heard the call to prayer but it was not prayer time. There was a call from all the mosques, Hayy 3ala al Jihad (Arise to Jihad) over and over, along with Allahu Akbar. The city came under attack and shelling. I don't remember how long we stayed hidden in our home. We had no food or water, only hearing gunfire. I remember hearing machine gun fire, grenades going off. I heard that mingled with cries of Allahu Akbar (God is Great!). When these stopped, we'd know that another young man or group of men had been killed whilst fighting the soldiers. Eventually, this grew less and less common as they were gradually wiped out. Some soldiers also turned on their comrades, unable to to take part in the massacre. They too were cut down in gunfights. When we first left the house to look for food or water, I saw body parts strewn everywhere. I could see hands and feet and heads on the road as clearly as I see this cup of coffee in front of me now...If the regime ever fell, there will be a bloodbath in Hama as scores are settled with those who betrayed their neighbours and collaborated with the government.
Wa'el: I was a little boy, we knew the shelling started but then I heard that my uncle had come to rescue us. He was an officer in a special army unit, he had been wounded twice before in his career and fought the Israelis in Lebanon. He had also been captured by them and wounded but his friends came and broke him free from the clutches of the Israelis, his best friend carried him on his shoulder as they escaped under heavy gunfire. Anyway, my uncle commandeered an armoured troop carrier, drove right up to our home, took our family in and then drove us out through the front lines. He waved his machine gun at a bus driving past Hama and ordered the driver to take us to Damascus, warning him not to stop or betray them. Later I heard that my uncle had been reported as a Brotherhood sympathiser by some of his rival officers who wanted to see him executed in a field court. They said he smuggled out Muslim Brotherhood fighters, which was not true, it was just us he got out. Luckily he had contacts high up in Damascus who could vouch that he was not with the Brotherhood and he was not shot. My grandmother was not so lucky, she was killed by gunfire before he could reach us.
Zeyad: I never met my father, my mother was still pregnant with me when the uprising began. I heard that my father was out of the house, probably looking for food or water and he was held by an army patrol. They lined him and several other men up against a wall and machine gunned them. Just like that. I was raised by the rest of our family in Damascus.
Malek: We are not from Hama, we heard whispers of what was happening at the time in Damascus. I also heard that the soldiers were selling household goods and furniture under the President's bridge in Damascus for outrageously low prices. I went to my father and told him about this, saying we could get a fridge or a washing machine for a bargain. My father refused, he said this is all Mal haram (Money which is haram). "These things have been looted from Hama during the massacre.", he told me. We didn't buy anything from there and I didn't go near the area whilst the things were being sold there, al hamdulilah (Thank God).


Unknown said...

A more balanced post about the tragic events of Hama would evoke also the atrocities committed by the Muslim Brotherhood's "uprising" during late seventies and early eighties (civil bus bombings, assassination of civil personalities and attacking military schools). I am not trying to say that killing civilians in Hama was not a crime, but not saying a single word in your post about the crimes of the other side which preceded this crime, is not fair. I hope someday criminals from both sides will be judged by some future non corrupted Syrian judges.

Maysaloon said...

I was talking about Hama, not Gaza. Or perhaps you do not realise that you sound just like the Israelis?

qunfuz said...

Wassim, habibi, I have to agree with Radico here. The attack on Hama was appalling. Thank God I wasn't in Syria at the time, but the stories I've heard from my cousins and friends are terrible. On the other hand, I have a friend whose father narrowly escaped an assassination attempt at the hands of the ikhwan. He had nothing to do with politics; his crime was being Alawi. It's true that the Ikhwan engaged in urban terrorism and vicious sectarianism. It's also true that the Ikhwan was being funded by the pro-Israeli Jordanian regime, at a crucial stage in the battle against Israel in Lebanon. If the Ikhwan had taken over Hama and other big Sunni cities there would have been a fullscale civil war, unwinnable by either side, which would have been wonderful for Zionist aims in Lebanon. And I'm glad that a 'Sunni' party didn't come to power in Syria, which is so diverse that rule by any one sect would be a disaster. (I don't think the Assad regime is sectarian, even if most of its key figures are from the Alawi villages - the religious Alawis don't like the regime because it has oppressed Alawi sheyookh in the name of nationalism). None of this justifies the massacre in Hama, of course, but I do think it's complex. See this reference for a great poem by an Alawi who was killed by the regime:

qunfuz said...

Here's some of it:

What do I say? if saying the truth is followed by lashing whips and humid dark prison

-But I can not keep silent as silence is a vice that leads to hiding the light of truth

-And I can not lie as lying is evil, God forbid, I will not lie!

-There are two gangs: one is ruling with the name of patriotism and have none of it!

-And another gang claim good faith; and religion forbids their sayings and acts!

-Two gangs, my people be aware of, both drank from the same evil waters!

And in Arabic:

ماذا أقول و قول الحق الحق يعقبه

جلد السياط و سجن مظلم رطب

فإن صمت فإن الصمت ناقصة

إن كان بالصمت نور الحق يحتجب

و إن كذبت فإن الكذب يسحقني

معاذ ربي أن يعزى لي الكذب

عصابتان هما إحداهما حكمت

باسم العروبة لا بعث و لا عرب

و آخرون مسوح الدين قد لبسوا

و الدين حرّم ما قالوا و ما ارتكبوا

عصابتان أيا شعبي فكن حذرا

جميعهم من معين السوء قد شربوا

Maysaloon said...

Hi Qunfuz,
Thanks for the poem but I don't really side with either of the protagonists in this article. Still, I do think that people who suffered in the most awful way should be given the dignity to be heard/read without ifs or buts. They did not ask for any of the misfortunes that were brought upon them, but they were and are expected to bear it in full till this day.

qunfuz said...

on that I agree

Lirun said...

qunfuz - zionist aims in lebanon? dude.. look behind you - we're now in your house.. we've tapped your phone.. we divert your energy to our economy.. we have harvested your computers HD for our mega scheming.. we're so all over it.. we're everywhere.. zionism means in hebrew conquer the world and rid it from scum.. (for the naive - the above par is sarcasm)..

r u for real? there is nothing for us in lebanon.. we're people dude.. like it or not..

you can glorify and mistify us all you like.. but we're just people..

Nour said...


I don't believe that bringing up Hama at this point does anything but stoke people's emotions and reignite old hatreds. Our nation is still highly subject to division and fragmentation and we should do all we can to prevent our divisiveness rather than remind people of events that are likely to reinforce our suspicions of each other.

What happened in Hama was terrible and we all recognize that. But we also have to recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood was not innocent in all of this and was in fact supported and funded by the US as well as pro-US and pro-Israel Arab regimes.

Yaman said...

Nour, I disagree with you completely. Hama should absolutely be a central matter of public discourse. Not in order to provoke division, but to promote reconciliation. In order for Syrian society to be more cohesive and united, it must confront this demon, and those who were responsible, must be held accountable.

In fact, I think this is an important history project, to collect testimonials-- leave alone the conflict between MB and the government. It's the people's suffering that matters. Wassim do you know any Arabic sources online which have conducted this?

Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) said...

More often than not I disagree with you; but here I am fully in agreement. No matter how one slices it, whitewashes it, justifies it or ignores it, the fact remains that it was a massacre largely of civilians at the hands of their own government. Without in any way justifying the acts that led up to it, it is hypocritical to minimize the enormity of this tragedy. Yaman hit the nail on the head, "Not in order to provoke division, but to promote reconciliation".

qunfuz said...

Yes, I agree absolutely that it must be talked about. keeping quiet just lets the poison bubble.

La Luz said...

i come to the defence of Maysaloon -
did he say he doesn't want to talk about Hama? I mean, he's talking about it. Obviously. I think someone in this thread must be confused
Maysaloon's not one for silencing issues. I think he's quite the opposite. Balanced, thoughtful, and operating in the interests of the Arab nation. Keep going Maysaloon