After violent clashes between government forces and Muslim Brotherhood insurgents in several trouble spots in 1982, then-President Hafez Al-Assad ordered troops into the restive city of Hama. For three weeks Syrian tanks and planes bombarded Hama while soldiers airlifted in by helicopter carried out house-to-house searches and on-the-spot executions. Estimates of the total number of civilians who died in the siege range widely between 10,000 and 45,000.
A Syrian-American with family roots in Hama recently described the stories she heard from family members who escaped the massacre and found refuge in her father’s house in Damascus.
“I was 16 and I was just like hearing every day those horror stories when people were coming,” said Rana al-Hamwi. “I can start telling you books of stories from every person and what they saw over there.”
“Even now, all I can see from life is a black cloud following me and that has been with me for a long time.”
A black cloud passes over Hama
Rana al-Hamwi is now a school teacher living on the Gulf Coast of the United States. In an interview earlier this week, she recalled some of the events as she learned them in the aftermath of what became known as the Hama Massacre of 1982.
Because aunts, uncles and cousins continue to live in Hama, she declined to give her real name for this interview, feeling the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the son of Hafez al-Assad, would arrest and torture her relatives in retaliation.
The 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama does not mark the beginning or the end of activists’ efforts to end the Assad political dynasty of more than 40 years. Even as al-Hamwi spoke earlier in the week, Syrian tanks were in the midst of another bombardment of Hama, an effort to suppress 10 months of nationwide anti-government protests and the increasingly frequent clashes between recently formed units of defectors from Assad’s military on one side and those very security forces and the dreaded Shabiha militias who remain loyal to the regime on the other.
Hama is now a city of about 700,000, an old and prosperous and city with a large population of conservative Sunni Muslims. Back in 1982 many in Hama were opposed to the Assad regime’s brand of Arab nationalism and socialist policies. Some reports of the massacre say Hafez Al-Assad ordered his brother, Rifaat, who ran the special forces, to direct the campaign to root out insurgents of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. The president then went on the radio and warned all Hama residents that if they did not evacuate Hama in the next 24 hours, they would be considered rebels.
“He did not say that until he had already surrounded the city,” al-Hamwi told Middle East Voices. “They started at night by bringing soldiers in the city by helicopters and then the tanks were already surrounding the city slowly at night.
“So, on the second day when the people woke up, the bombing had already started,” recalled al-Hamwi.
Images of Hama 30 years ago and today
What were the soldiers searching for?
“One of the family members [was] an older woman who [was] very wealthy and lived with her son in a large house, really a mansion or a palace. The soldiers looted the house and took everything away. After they looted the house they poured gas[oline] on both of them and burned the house,” continued al-Hamwi.
“In the same neighborhood …”
I interrupted and asked, “There were two people who they burned alive?”
“Yes, sir. She was 80 years old and her son was 60.”
“And in the same neighborhood, two buildings down the street, a family owned a place for wood chipping. They took the whole family down and they shot them all. About 25 of them.
Breaking down the family enclaves
“People over there they live like in the same building. You will find uncles and aunts and cousins, all of the people, live close to each other. Even you will find a whole neighborhood is called by the last name. So they took the whole family down to the wood place and shot them and burned them with the wood.
“And another member of my family, she refused to leave her home. She said nobody will come so I will stay inside the house. They came and they looted the house. She [had] many gold bracelets on her wrists, so they cut off both of her hands and let her bleed to die.”
“Nobody knew what happened [until things started calming down], after maybe about four weeks, and people were able to go to the house and see her rotten body there.
Al-Hamwi quickly followed up with another story about a father who was pleading with a soldier.
“I have a 14-month-old baby,” the man said. “Please don’t make him an orphan.”
The officer said, “Oh, you don’t want him to be an orphan?
“Now your son won’t be an orphan,” the officer said. Then he shot dead the child, the father and the rest of his family.
Al-Hamwi added, “Who told us about that? It was one of the soldiers who defected from the army. He said I’m not going to be with an army like that. He is the one who lived to tell us about what happened to this family.”
They were offered protection from gangs
In a newer suburb of the city called New Hama, soldiers stood in the street while an officer used a bullhorn to call residents out of their homes.
“You all come down to the street. Women, children, everybody,” the voice announced.
Some residents walked into the street, but the officer said, ‘This is not all the people in the homes. We need all the people. You’re safe. Trust us.” The officer said they offered protection from gangs who wanted to kill these families.
“So the people got in their hearts this is going to be safe for us,” al-Hamwi said. More residents joined their neighbors on the street.
“And after that they went and raided the homes and whoever stayed in there they took them out and they dug a big ditch and shot them and threw them in the big ditch. They say in the neighborhood about 1500 people got shot.”
Journalist Robert Fisk recalls the massacre
“There was a number that was killed. I mean, we have names. It’s just like I told you. People over there in Hama lived very close together, so the number, at least, at least,” she repeated for emphasis, “there were 45,000 people who got killed in that month.”
Hama, then and now
“In those days, they were uniformed. They were soldiers and they wore uniforms, they were trained to follow orders. But now we see different people. Some people call members of the gang of the government Shabiha.”
“Those people were in prison, some of them. And they were bought by the government, and the government said we will give you your freedom. Many of them are killers; those are the ones that are let loose on the people, plus the soldiers and the security people.
Syrians in the diaspora are reluctant to talk to friends and relatives in Syria about political topics on the telephone, which is a government-controlled utility. Internet services are unreliable but offer some means of communication that are secure. Al-Hamwi chatted online with a cousin earlier this week.
“I asked her, ‘Are you safe?’”
“She said, ‘If you could hear what I am hearing right now I am wondering I still have my hearing because we’ve been living under the bombing and the killing for the last few days continuously.’ Power cutoffs, according to al-Hamwi’s cousin, last more than nine hours a day and there is a curfew. They have no fuel for cooking or heating the house. They have almost no food left and are afraid to leave the house. All they have left is a small amount of flour to make bread.
Al-Hamwi asked again if her cousin was safe.
“I don’t know,” the cousin wrote back. “I sit at night and I cannot sleep from the bombing. If it’s my last night in this world, it’s my last night, because I can’t do anything any more about it.”
Part of al-Hamwi’s cousin’s home is demolished by the bombardments from the tanks. “You see dead bodies in the street that nobody dares to go get because there are snipers everywhere. Whoever moves in the street they get sniped right away.”
Al-Hamwi says her cousins told her that “the most horrible thing she sees is that some the bodies are moving so they are still alive and they suffer there until they die because nobody can go there.”
Rafiit al-Assad denies responsibility for the massacre
Al-Hamwi said the lessons of Hama are an important and timely.
“I do understand that [the United States] is a country far away from Syria but I want to say something.”
“I really like that the presidents, they do not stay, not like in the Middle East for years and inherit the government one after the other. Over here, there is freedom and there is justice and every president will come [and] stay for a few years. I wish that the history will record that a group of Syrian people have been killed and they have been tortured and they have not been treated like human beings. So I hope that, at least, you know, that there is some action that can be taken to stop this.”
According to recent reports, the latest shelling of Hama does not appear as severe as the military siege of the city 30 years ago. However, after 10 months of protests and increased armed resistance by defecting soldiers in Hama, Homs, Idlib and other cities including suburbs of the capital city, Damascus, the conflict continues.
Despite diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and the Arab League, and economic sanctions against the Assad regime by many foreign governments, the conflict could last for many more months, with civilian deaths possibly surpassing those that occurred in three weeks in Hama three decades ago.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.