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.

State Department issues Libya travel warning – read more about this forbidden destination

Libya travel warning
As the unrest in the Middle East continues, the US Department of State has issued a Libya travel warning, advising Americans to steer clear of the country, and especially of “gatherings” there. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“‘U.S. citizens in Libya should minimize overall travel in-country, exercise extreme caution when traveling, and limit all travel after dark,’ the US said in a travel advisory. It said demonstrations, violence and looting were all possible over the next several days, and urged US citizens to stay away from any gatherings.

‘Even peaceful ones can quickly become unruly and a foreigner could become a target of harassment, or worse,’ according to the State Department advisory.”

I know I’m not the only one who will have no trouble staying out of Libya in the near future. Confession time: I had never considered going there. So, why do people travel to Libya? Gadling’s Tom Johansmeyer posted about a package deal there back in August 2010 (An easy way to get to Libya), with quotes about its “archaeological riches” and “a sense of discovery in a land virtually unknown to the modern world.” Libya also reportedly has 1250 miles of coastline “teeming with underwater wrecks, ruins and Nazi gold,” making it a highly-prized scuba diving destination (see: Diving in Libya). Furthermore, it’s a popular cruise ship port for the British and Italians (see: Will Libya Again Open to US Cruise Passengers?).

In case you or any of your friends were already in-the-know about the secret wonders of Libya, Americans in Libya are being urged to contact the embassy in Tripoli with the following contact details:

  • +218 (0)21-337-3250
  • After business hours: 091-220-5207
  • LibyaEmergencyUSC@state.gov

[Source: WSJ]

[Photo by anniemullinsuk via Flickr.]

Bangkok government protests escalate

For those not following the recent news from Thailand, the country has yet again been experiencing political unrest. The Red Shirts, supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have been demonstrating on the streets of Bangkok since mid-March. The protests have been largely peaceful up to this Saturday, when events turned deadly. The BBC is reporting nine people were killed and 300 injured in the current skirmishes, including four civilians and a foreign Japanese journalist. The U.S. State Department has also issued a Travel Alert on the situation.

Although clashes have been isolated in a few spots in Bangkok, namely near the city’s Democracy Monument, clashes with the protesters, military and police this weekend edged closer to nearby tourist spot Khao San Road. Several Khao San Road tourists were apparently injured when they failed to move out of the way. Riot police have also been massing near Bangkok’s main shopping district in anticipation of an upcoming protest rally. The city’s Skytrain mass transit has also been temporarily halted.

Anyone planning an upcoming trip to Bangkok should keep a close eye on the situation and exercise extreme caution until the situation cools down.

Political Unrest Hurts Thailand’s Tourism

As those opposed to Thailand’s leading political party clashed with its supporters, the country’s travel industry sat in the background and cringed. Thailand is already one of the most popular countries, if not THE most popular, amongst tourists heading to Southeast Asia. The Tourism Authority of Thailand had plans to draw even more would-be visitors than ever this year.

Are all those ambitious tourist quotas out the window because of the recent violence?

It looks like it, unless the situation changes. Thai Airways, which is already in the red because of high fuel prices, claims that the number of passengers from the Asia Pacific has fallen nearly 10% in the last few days. The drop is mostly due to cancellations, many following a travel warning issued by the governments of South Korea, China and Japan.

In Phuket, the protesting directly affected flights. The airport at the popular beach destination was closed as a security measure after anti-government protests broke out nearby. The previous military coup was not violent. Tourists were actually out posing for pictures with soldiers. This time, though, chaotic riots make for a much more dangerous situation. Those who are planning a trip to the Land of Smiles won’t find many smiling faces if they get caught up in a confrontation between pro and anti-government demonstrators or between one of the sides and the military. The US State Department has yet to issue any travel warnings concerning Thailand.