Today, the 2nd of Feb., marks forty years since the onset of a 26-day bloody attack on the Syrian city of Hama by the regime of Hafez Assad in which tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, were killed, detained or disappeared. In a matter of days, a whole city came into oblivion. It was if it had been struck with a nuclear bomb!
Until today, no one knows for sure the exact number of the victims. The Assad regime never disclosed any information on what took place in the massacre. Not only this, the regime concealed every story or photo narrating the event, and silenced every voice that could speak out. No one could publicly accuse the Assad regime of perpetrating these crimes for fear of being detained and possible tortured to death. All Hama residents were forced to tell but one story then: Muslim Brotherhood fighters had killed innocent civilians.
Robin Wright in a book published in 2008 entitled Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East comments on the massacre by affirming that it is regarded as “perhaps the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.”
The top man on the ground was Rifaat, brother of Hafez Assad. The regime forces besieged the city with thousands of army soldiers and security forces. Then, supported by air strikes, Assad ordered the tanks to shell Hama until many neighborhoods were completely destroyed. A Christian church was one of the buildings that were levelled to the ground.
This was followed by a door-to-door search operation hunting for armed resistance men, during which the Assad forces indiscriminately killed tens of thousands of innocent people.
This came to be known as the “Hama Solution.” It turned out that it was not a one-time tactic to deal the mutiny of few hundred men but the permanent guiding policy of the Assad regime, father and son, in handling any future peaceful protests in the country. The regime wanted to send a signal to Syrians that it would not tolerate any resistance whatsoever, even the most peaceful one.
Just like the case with Holocaust survivors, the scenes of the massacre never left the hearts and minds of those who the darkest moments of the massacre.
“When the soldiers came, they took my father, then they came back to take my brother. They killed them,” an eye-witness says in his account. “My mother cried and said, ‘Please leave me the rest of my children.'” He adds the images of burning bodies in the streets are burned into his memory. “They hammered it; they ended it,” he goes on commenting the regime’s scorched-earth policy.
Personal narratives go on and one. Some talk about the streets being full of dead bodies. Others testify that people had walk on corpses scattered all over on the streets and sidewalks.
Others spoke of Hama streets being filled for months with stray and wild dogs feeding on dead people’s bodies as there were no relatives around to bury them. This was a recurring scene in many of the accounts of eye-witnesses.
One eye-witness speaks about what happened to his father who was an eye-doctor educated in France, after he was taken by security forces to a porcelain factory where his eyes were torn out of his face. He was left to die in pain. According to his testimony, tens of others in the factory-turned-detention centre were killed in various ways. “Assad wanted to punish the whole of Hama. Through us, he wanted to teach all Syrians that challenging the regime would lead to this. And it worked. It worked for 30 years.”
Until 2011, the massacre remained a taboo that Syrians were afraid of talking about, a nightmare for those who went through it, a disgrace for the Assad family who committed it, and a shame for the world which did nothing to prevent such large-scale crimes from happening.