BEIRUT (AP) – Thirty years ago Thursday, Syria’s regime launched a withering assault on the rebellious city of Hama, leveling entire neighborhoods and killing thousands in one of the most notorious massacres in the modern Middle East.
Today Syria is in the throes of a new rebellion, and Hama stands as both a rallying cry for those trying for nearly 11 months to topple the regime and a dreadful warning of what the ruling Assad family is capable of doing to survive.
The entire city of 850,000 in the plains of central Syria shut down Thursday as residents observed a strike marking the anniversary.
Hundreds of troops and security forces flooded the streets, closing off public squares and setting up checkpoints to thwart planned protests in the city, which has been one of the centers of the past year’s uprising against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
Still, activists made a commemoration. They painted two streets in Hama red with the color of blood and threw red dye into the ancient water wheels on the Orontes River, the city’s most famous landmarks.
“Hafez died, and Hama didn’t. Bashar will die, and Hama won’t,” they sprayed on sides of the water wheels.
Abu Anas, an engineer from the city, says the Hama massacre, carried out by Bashar’s father and predecessor Hafez Assad, has been seared into the psyche of every Syrian. The name Hama has become equivalent to the word massacre.
“The stories have been passed on from the old generation to the new. Almost everyone in Hama today has an uncle, a grandfather or a brother who died or went missing. There is bitterness to this day,” said Abu Anas, who asked to be identified by his nickname for fear of retaliation.
Amnesty International has estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 people were killed in the 1982 siege, though conflicting figures exist and the Syrian government has never made an official estimate.
Abu Anas was a 25-year-old engineering student when, on the night of Feb. 2-3, 1982, the Syrian military began its assault to crush an uprising against Hafez Assad by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a scorched-earth campaign commanded by Assad’s brother Rifaat, troops surrounded the city, sealing it off, then swarmed in. For three weeks, they blasted it with tanks and artillery, battled with Brotherhood fighters and systematically leveled parts of the city.
After three weeks, entire neighborhoods had simply disappeared, the rubble hastily covered over afterward with concrete.
Throughout, nobody knew what was unfolding inside the sealed city. By the time the first journalists arrived, the bodies had largely been buried.
Thomas Friedman, in his 1989 book “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” described a massive mess of crushed apartment buildings.
“The whole town looked as though a tornado had swept back and forth over it for a week _ but this was not the work of Mother Nature,” he wrote.
For the next two decades, until his death in 2000, Hafez Assad ruled uncontested, with the memory of Hama in the minds of anyone who might rise up against him.
The differences between then and now are significant.
One is that the devastation of Hama came after a campaign of terror led by the Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood from the late 1970s that escalated in 1981 and 1982 with bombings and assassinations, including an attempt on the president himself, aimed at toppling the secular Assad regime, dominated by Syria’s minority Alawite sect. A deeply conservative Sunni city, Hama was a center for the Brotherhood and was known for its history of hostility and dissent against the regime.
In contrast, the current uprising began in March with peaceful protests that have since spread around the nation, demanding Assad’s ouster.
The 1982 rebellion “was undertaken by a party or a faction,” said Zuhair Salem, the London-based spokesman for Syria’s banned branch of the Brotherhood. “What is happening today is a popular movement.”
So far Bashar Assad has not attempted anything on the scale of the Hama massacre. Still, his crackdown over the months has evoked memories of his father’s brutal legacy.
In a mirror of Hafez handing the Hama command to Rifaat, Bashar has entrusted his own younger brother, Maher, with leading the crackdown. Troops, security forces and feared paramilitaries known as shabiha storm neighborhoods, buildings are shelled, activists have disappeared into custody only to be returned later dead to their families.
The conflict has grown more militarized as army defectors joined the uprising and formed a guerrilla force, protecting protesters but also attacking regime troops, which in turn brings a heavier regime assault on areas where they are holed up.
At least 5,400 people have been killed in the conflict since March, according to a U.N. estimate from December, and the number has grown by hundreds since.
“Today the massacre is being done in installments and distributed all across Syria,” said Salem. “Today, all of Syria is Hama.”
Three decades have brought sweeping changes to Syria. The Hama massacre could largely be hidden from the world, given the regime’s lock on media. The world of satellite TVs, cellphones and the Internet has ensured that no such thing can happen today.
The Syrian government has largely banned journalists from trouble spots in Syria, but it can do little against the stream of amateur videos taken by activists and posted on the Internet. Residents and activists worried about contacting the outside world now turn to more secure Skype connections. Arabic channels beaming into every Syrian home mean state-run TV no longer has a monopoly on the narrative.
Today, Syria’s fourth largest city is very much at the heart of the current uprising.
In the summer months, hundreds of thousands reportedly took part in huge anti-government demonstrations in the city’s main Al-Assi square. Residents briefly seized control of large parts of the city.
But a heavy crackdown launched in August brought it all to an end. According to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that tracks the uprising, 1,015 people have been killed in Hama since March, making it second only to Homs in casualties.
The city is carved up into security zones by troops and security forces and an array of checkpoints, with snipers keeping a watch on the streets, residents say. Anti-government protests take place, but nothing even close to the numbers from the summer.
“I feel humiliation every day, I feel the cheapness of our lives,” said Abu Anas, the engineer.
Abu Anas says he can never forget the atrocities he witnessed back in 1982. He remembers emerging from his home after the bombing had ceased and seeing a sea of rubble. Hands and feet poked from the wreckage.
“I will never forget the look of terror on people’s faces,” he said.
But he is hopeful things are different this time.
“They want to implement Hama solution today, but they can’t,” he said. “Times have changed, and people are ready to die for freedom.”
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)