Upheaval in Syria
No dialogue with the child-killers!
A scarred city defies the security forces with sticks, stones and courage
AS THE unrest enters its fifth month, there is still little hint of light at the end of the Syrian tunnel. The embattled regime of Bashar Assad, having failed to quell the uprising with a mixture of fierce brutality and half-hearted promises of reform, is now pinning its hopes on a national dialogue, in which its opponents are meant to voice their demands. But the street-level organisers who sustain the nationwide protests have shunned the meeting, as have prominent parties and dissidents.
They think there is no point in talking to a government they describe as murderers. Syria’s rebels do not expect to topple Mr Assad quickly, but they are confident that time is on their side. The rhythm of protests, followed by crackdowns, followed by renewed protests has become insistent in many cities. And dissent drums loudest in Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city.
No Syrian city bears more scars from four decades of rule by the Assad family than Hama. In 1982 the forces of Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, shelled it mercilessly to wipe out an armed Islamist uprising. They succeeded, but also wiped out a man from every Hama family and sowed seeds of grievance, nurtured for 30 years in the hearts of the residents.
Hama is now a place of extremes: joyous and sad, defiant but fearful. The creak of ancient waterwheels turning in the cool water of the Orontes, which snakes through this city of 800,000, was the only sound in the still hot air during the daytime last weekend. Shops were shuttered. Residents stayed indoors, fearing government punishment after a month of being left more or less to their own devices.
The regime’s security forces had pulled out of Hama after killing more than 70 protesters on June 3rd. On the first Sunday of July, with a ban on foreign reporters in place, tanks again rumbled into the outskirts of the city. Security squads hunted suspects and clashed with protesters, shooting more than 20 of them dead. Locals say that they also cut out the vocal cords of a singer who had warbled improvised anti-regime ditties in previous weeks. But Hama residents reacted quickly to protect the city from any broader assault. Districts pulled together. Makeshift checkpoints sprang up, with litter bins, bricks, gates and uprooted lamp-posts used to block cars.
During the day these checkpoints are lightly manned, sometimes by one young man armed with a wooden stick, or by a handful of young boys, their skinny limbs browned from the sun. They tell the few drivers winding their way through shut-down streets which roads are open. The guard is beefed up at night. This is when the security forces, ever-present at the edge of the city, try to get into the centre. When some do slink in, as they did in the early hours of Friday July 8th, calls of Allahu Akbar ring out in warning. Gunfire crackles. Voices rise in crescendo, chanting for the regime to fall. And then silence. Sleepy families return to bed, fans whirring and net curtains twitching in the breeze.
Many assumed there would be bloodshed that Friday, after Muhammad Mofleh, a hated security chief who had been removed as part of a deal with Hama residents, was returned to his job. In fact it was a joyous day. For the fifth Friday in a row, thousands of people waving olive branches and pink roses poured into Aasi Square from every direction. Parked vans served as podiums from which men led the cries: “The people want to topple the regime! No to dialogue! No to Bashar!” A Syrian flag was paraded up and down the road. Another van distributed free water to thirsty protesters. Men hung like spiders off the balconies and rooftops of surrounding buildings, filming with their mobile phones.
Condemning the regime as “distorted” and “inhumane”, residents flick between ecstasy at what has been achieved in the past few months and anxiety at what may be to come. “We know this regime and they would do anything,” says one man in his 50s. Boys as young as six chant for the regime to fall as they play in the street and as mobile ringtones trill “Ya Heef”, a song about the protest that started in Deraa and spread around the country.
The checkpoints are not the only evidence of the new people-led society. The mobile phones of older residents buzz constantly as they pass on information and rumours. People organise timetables for the checkpoints and for manning the entrances to hospitals. Rich families bring food and water to those on duty. People clean their own streets. Others make lists of informers. When the security forces cut the lights in one street, some enterprising residents managed somehow to bring them back on again.
Everyone, from an educated government worker to a builder, articulates very carefully what he or she wants. At the start they were asking only for their basic freedoms. But then the killing and the torture began. They know that regime propaganda is portraying them as Salafists (Hama is a conservative Sunni city) and armed. The vast majority are neither.
But though all signs of Assad rule have gone—posters of Bashar have been replaced with graffiti and posters saying “No dialogue with the child-killers!”—the citizens know that they cannot do much to turn things round, other than encourage other cities to follow suit. Stones are inadequate against gunfire. The regime’s forces appear to be trying new tactics, raiding street by street rather than making an all-out assault. Even so, the people of Hama are determined not be cowed. “We want to live like people, not animals, and we will die for that,” one woman exclaims.