Syria unrest: will there be another massacre in Hama?

Syria, Hama, Syria unrestSyrian army tanks ‘moving towards Hama’.

Just another headline about unrest in the Middle East. I’ve read so many, but this one made me shudder. One thing travel does for you is make the world more than just a headline. I’ve been to Hama.

I visited Syria back in 1994 as a young college graduate with a backpack, a bit of Arabic, and no responsibilities. I spent a month exploring archaeological sites, chatting in smoky cafes, and debating religion in the cool shade of mosque courtyards. Syria is a fascinating and welcoming place, and if the regime of Bashar al-Assad gets ousted and peace returns, I highly recommend you go.

I marveled at the beautiful Umayyad Mosque in Damascus before going to a nearby cafe to listen to a hakawati, a traditional storyteller, recite his tales to a rapt audience. I looked out over the green hills of Lebanon from the turrets of Crac des Chevaliers castle and took a dusty bus ride to the oasis of Palmyra. And for two days I stayed in Hama to see the famous noria, or waterwheels, as seen here in this Wikimedia Commons photo.

There was something strange about Hama. It was supposed to be an old city yet most of the buildings looked new. Plus the tourist map on the wall of my hotel lobby was wrong. I’d copied parts of it into my notebook to help me get around but soon found the names of the streets had changed. Even their layout had changed. It was like a map of a different city.

Then I saw the same map in the lobby of another hotel, and in an antique shop. One night I asked the manager what was going on. He looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot and whispered, “This map shows Hama before the massacre.”I’d heard of that. The Muslim Brotherhood had been fighting against the Syrian government for several years and Hama was their main base. They attacked government targets and the government hauled away anyone who seemed suspicious. Most victims were innocent people caught in the crossfire.

One night in 1982 a Syrian army patrol discovered the local Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and a firefight broke out. The Brotherhood called for a general uprising. Fighting flared up all over the city. Hafez al-Assad, then Prime Minister and father of the current Prime Minister, ordered the armed forces to surround Hama. The air force dropped bombs while tanks and artillery shelled the city. Then the troops went in, shooting anything that moved. Nobody knows how many people died. Estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000, and all sources agree that most were civilians.

Now the Syrian army is moving towards Hama again. The son is continuing the work of his father.

This morning I flipped through my old travel diary, reliving the time I spent in Hama and Syria: the conversations, the hikes, the sense of wonder of a young man on his first year-long travel adventure. One thing that struck me was that of all the Syrians that diary mentions, none of them have entirely faded from my memory.

I remember the kindly old man who nursed me back to health after my first bad case of food poisoning. And the artist who drew a sketch of me that I still have. Then there was that wisecracking tailor who changed money at black market rates, building a nest egg of hard currency for reasons he’d never divulge. And the metalheads who introduced me to Syria’s underground music scene. It’s strange to think of those headbangers as forty-something fathers, but I suppose, like me, they are.

Or maybe they’ve been slaughtered.

None of those people liked the regime. The business owners hung a picture of Hafez al-Assad on the walls, just like they have a picture of Bashar nowadays. In a dictatorship that’s the price of doing business. But once the customers left and it was just us in a back room chatting over tea, their voices would lower and they’d complain about how the al-Assad family had a stranglehold on power.

The metalheads were louder in their protests and suffered regular police harassment. Since even their concerts were illegal they felt they had nothing to lose. They wanted to live life the way they chose. A few beatings and nights in jail was the price of a few hours of freedom.

I traveled all over the Middle East back then–Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Iran–and heard the same stories of frustration and anger in dozens of cities. The only thing that surprised me about the so-called Arab Revolution of 2011 was that it took so long.

In some places it’s succeeded; in Syria it looks like it will fail. Syria doesn’t have much oil so besides a few feeble sanctions, it’s doubtful the West will do much. Bashar al-Assad will imprison or kill anyone who speaks out against him and the protests will be suppressed.

Hama may be leveled again. Thousands may die–they may already be dying–and the city destroyed. After a time new shops and new hotels will open. Their owners will grit their teeth and hang a photo of Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad behind the counter. Then, I hope, they’ll pull out a worn old map of Hama the way it looked before 1982, and hang it right next to him.