|Getting information out of Hama is difficult, but activists say the army has attempted to crack down on protesters who are in virtual control of the city [Youtube/Al Jazeera]
Nearly 30 years after its residents were massacred in one of the worst atrocities committed by an Arab regime against its own people, the ghosts of Hama have returned to haunt the Assad family dictatorship.
With security forces withdrawn after killing at least 67 protestors on June 3, Hama is in the hands of its people, a rebel stronghold in northern Syria where residents burn their bills, hang giant posters calling for revolution, raucously chant insults at President Bashar al-Assad and where on July 8 the largest ever protest calling for the downfall of the regime was held before the eyes of the US and French ambassadors.
"Since 1963, when the Baath party came to power, we have had corruption, an unjust legal system and no freedom of speech. In all Hama's history the city has been a tangible example of resistance to injustice in Syria," said a local activist, one of an estimated half a million people, the huge majority of the city's residents, who flooded into the central Assi Square and surrounding areas last Friday.
"Today with the support it is receiving from all over the country, Hama is becoming a role model for peaceful demonstrations. We are protesting here for all of Syria."
The symbolism of the majority Sunni Muslims of Hama rising up, images of which were streamed live to Al Jazeera Arabic by activists in the city and broadcast into Syrian homes, has an extremely powerful resonance in Syria, whose population is three-quarters Sunni but ruled by a regime and security forces largely drawn from the Allawite minority.
In February 1982, struggling to put down an armed uprising against the regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood, President Assad's father, Hafez, ordered a brutal "scorched earth" assault on Hama, the Brotherhood's main stronghold.
During the attack, led President Assad's uncle Rifaat, the regime killed between 20,000 and 30,000 people, the huge majority civilians, as bombs rained down and soldiers went house-to-house raping women and executing the men.
Visitors to Hama today can still be shocked by the clear obliteration of the Old City, of which barely a single street remains.
For some, particularly minorities, in Syria, the prospect of Hama's residents rising up to challenge the state will bring fears of a return to a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency. But for many more, the scars and shame of the barbarity committed against Hama a generation ago have never healed.
"Hama! We will not let you down again," shouted protesters last Friday in Zabadani, the mountain town 40km northwest of the capital, Damascus. "Oh Hama, we are with you to the end!" chanted some 2,000 worshippers pouring out of the Hassan Mosque in Damascus' Sunni merchant-class neighbourhood of Midan, to be met with bullets and tear gas.
Initially slower than its close neighbour Homs, and several other large cities, to join the uprising, Hama's first major protest was on Friday April 22, when an eyewitness estimated 10,000 took the streets chanting not for reform but for the toppling of the regime. "This is not 1982 anymore," said the eyewitness. "We want dignity and freedom."
The protests soon grew in size, spurred on by feelings of solidarity with Homs, where by early May tanks were shelling parts of the city after secret police, the military and armed thugs failed to deter protestors.
On June 3, a crowd of around 50,000 protestors, many carrying flowers, marched through Hama and were mown-down by the secret police. At least 67 people were killed. The following day, an effigy of President Assad hanging from a make-shift gallows was carried through the streets.
Security forces withdrew, the president pledged an inquiry and state-run Tishreen newspaper promised to hold local security chief for Hama, Colonel Mohammed Muflah, accountable for the deaths.
Instead, exactly one month later, President Assad sacked Hama's reform-minded governor Ahmed Abdul-Aziz, a former professor of International Law at Damascus University, after more than 400,000 protesters flooded the city's central square on July 3 chanting in unison for the fall of the regime, the largest anti-regime protest up to that point.
"He didn't believe in killing people and used to go door-to-door to meet residents," said one Hama activist of the sacked governor. "We think he was sacked because the protests are getting larger and larger. Now we are afraid they will send a security man to be governor."
His fear was well founded, with residents and rights groups subsequently reporting Colonel Muflah had been tasked with wresting back control of the city by force.
But in their month free from the oppression of the security forces, Hama's residents had transformed their city into a place of open revolt.
Activists reported seeing residents burning electricity and water bills declaring: "We will not pay for the bullets you shoot us with." Shops closed, workers went on strike and locals began directing traffic in the absence of any police. Only pharmacies and groceries were left open.
Protesters also forced the closure of government offices, in effect taking the running of the city out of the state's hands. "The people of Hama are taking control of the city," said one demonstrator.
Residents began setting up check points in main streets using garbage bins, tires, concrete blocks and wooden crates. On a hand painted sign held by one, the message was clear: "Hama is safe without the presence of Bashar's army or security forces."
Public figures in Hama held a meeting and decided to boycott all Baath Party officials in the city. They also sent a letter to authorities in Damascus demanding the release of all political prisoners and guarantees for the right to peaceful protests.
If their demands were met, they said, residents would remove the makeshift checkpoints. If not, civil disobedience would continue.
In a police state that is one of the most repressive in the world that kind of peaceful assertion of civil rights by residents against their rulers is virtually unheard of.
The empowering effect of a month living free while running their own city appeared to release an intoxicating, almost carnival-like energy in Hama's youth.
In a video buzzing through the Syrian blogosphere recently, hundreds of young people are seen gathered at night on July 1 in a central square cheering and singing along to a traditional Arabic call and response chant.
The rhythm is familiar to Arabs, but the lyrics extraordinary, directly insulting President Assad and his brother. "Maher, you're a coward. You're the agent of America! The Syrian people won't be humiliated. Get out Bashar!" chants the singer, as dozens of arms rise in the air with camera phones to record the event.
The next day, the Orontes River carried the body identified as Ibrahim Qashoush, initially believed to be the man leading the chant but who activists now say may have been involved with writing the lyrics of the song.
In the video of his corpse, Qashoush's neck has been slit open in the style of an execution. Activists say the Hama chanter is now in hiding, fearing he will be killed by pro-Assad thugs.
In the following days, security forces killed at least 35 people and arrested more than 700, according to reporting gathered by Avaaz, an international human rights group now calling for the Assad regime to be investigated by the International Criminal Court.
On July 6, an activist said electricity and water were cut, triggering fears of an imminent assault by the military, which had been massing dozens of tanks on the edge of the city.
In response residents began a rumour they would blow up the high voltage electricity lines which run from Turkey close by Hama and down to Damascus, Syria's main connection to the European grid. Half an hour later, said the activist, the power and water were back on.
Next day the regime sent two buses with secret police into Hama from its northern entrance. In response, residents pelted the vehicles with stones and burned tyres, forcing the buses to turn back, an activists said.
"The army will think twice before entering the city," said a resident. "People will not leave the streets and we're ready to defend Hama even if only with stones. If the army enters Hama it will be a huge massacre: Are they ready to kill another 20,000 of us?"
By Friday July 8, the regime's Hama nightmare was complete.
Breaking with official protocol and drawing infuriated charges by Syrian authorities of inciting instability, US ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford journeyed to Hama to see for himself the uprising characterised by the regime as an Islamist extremist insurgency, fuelled by foreign plots, armed gangs and outlaws.
As his silver SUV pulled through Hama's Assi Square, identifiable by the massive purple banner protestors hung from the square’s clock tower reading "Long live free Syria. Down with Bashar al-Assad," its windscreen was showered in rose petals as the thronging crowd broke into the now familiar chant: "The people want to topple the regime!"
Accompanied by France's ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, the trip to Hama by ambassadors from powerful nations with key interests in Syria was the strongest public signal yet by Western diplomats to Damascus of support for the uprising.
That afternoon record numbers flooded into Assi Square and its surrounding areas. Three separate sources in the city, all experienced activists, estimated the size of the crowd between 500,000 and 600,000, making it the largest ever protest against the regime.
Instead of snipers on rooftops, residents climbed the clock tower carrying bushy olive branches, while down below the massive crowd held aloft a homemade Syrian flag which stretched for at least a kilometer through the city.
Ford visited two hospitals, Hourani and Bader, to speak with injured protesters and the doctors treating them, said an activist from the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a grassroots opposition movement. Before he left, Ford was handed a long letter, addressed "to representatives of the free world," and four CDs activists said contained evidence of torture, killings and other human rights abuses committed against protesters by Assad’s security forces.
The letter made no demands on the ambassadors except that they work to remove international legitimacy from Assad and his regime. "We call upon the honest people of the world to help the Syrian people to self-determination and the right to establish a civil state," the letter concludes. "A state that guarantees them freedom of expression and their right to take advantage of the wealth of a country that respects their rights."