Syria: The revenge of Hama, 30 years on

The death toll in 1982 will not matter until the country is freed from the grip of a sectarian dynasty.

Hama is exacting its revenge on the Assads, denuding the Syrian regime of all pretences of ‘state civility’ [AFP]

Oxford, United Kingdom – On February 2, 1982, a state declared war on its own citizens. It did what it did and thought it won. On February 2, 2012, Hama is exacting its revenge on the Assads, denuding the Syrian regime of all pretences of “state civility”.

Partly, the tumult engulfing Syria today had to happen sooner or later. Why? Because of what happened in Hama 30 years ago.

There is a Quranic verse which comes to mind when contemplating Hama. The verse is regarding the infanticide of pre-Islamic Mecca when baby girls were buried alive. It talks about how female infants are asked on judgment day for what sin they were murdered [Quran, Takwir Sura].

Today, the entire Arab world must ask: why was Hama killed on February 2, 1982? The Syrian regime was guilty of execution. Most of the Arab world, especially its establishments, were guilty of silence and indifference. The brave ones who questioned and spoke out ended up dead, exiled or in detention.

The significance of today is two-fold: Hama and Syrian can commemorate. Hama was taboo. In a country where the regime’s eyes and ears were ubiquitous, silence was a kind of self-exile, self-imprisonment and self-denial. Hama was systematically erased twice.

Homs residents in ‘war zone’

It was initially “murdered” systematically, in a pre-planned fashion. The intent was erasure of Hama – of combatants and non-combatants – systematic and random, brutal and swift violence. This organised mass murder was put together by the army only days before February 2, from orders all the way from the top. The “top” here means with the knowledge of, complicity (or both) of the Assad brothers, Hafez and Rifaat (the latter exiled in London – of all places – and, as ever, in denial of any role in the massacre). 

Hama was “murdered a second time” – inflicted with a quasi-double jeopardy. This time, erasure from the nation’s emotions, memory, history books, newspapers, photography and typography. Truth seeking and memory initiatives were not the forte of the dying Arab order of which Hama will forever shame Arab misrule and Arab indifference.

Absent memory and transitional justice

In the case of Hama, the murdered are yet to be honoured. As for the living, from Hama and other parts of Syria, relatives of those victims of Hama and its neighbouring towns and villages are yet to be reconciled with that week in February, when a sectarian state militia – supported with all of the apparatus of modern violence – heaped devastation and grief, spreading death and fear on the innocent and the guilty alike.

Hama was an unspoken lie. It did not happen. It was debated. It was never memorialised in order to allow either healing, or forgiving – or to preserve or explore the identity of an entire city and its brutalised population.

That was a sign of guilt. Silence is guilt and so is erasure. The state’s politics of absent memory sought to manipulate the national memory, deleting pasts of guilt and criminality and selectively highlighting memories sanitising the official transcript. So that it reads “terrorism”, “fanaticism”, “Muslim Brotherhood”, as solely responsible for the tragedy that was Hama.

Hama could have saved Bashar al-Assad. All he needed to do was to copy Morocco’s truth-seeking and imperfect attempt at transitional justice. Thus he could have started with a clean slate, disowning events he personally had no connection with.

The former optometrist lost sight of that piece of truth. He, too, probably is victim of the machinery of propaganda the Baathists were churning out to erase Hama on that week, which began on February 2, 1982.

But memory is not the business of the imbeciles who happen to occupy power by force. It is not erasable.

Hama 1980, 1981, 1982 and 2011

Hama knew brutality before 1982. So I was told during a trip to the city with a group of students from the University of Exeter in the spring of 2004. The government narrative, dished out to us from the regime’s mouthpieces and representatives, was generally dull and avoided talking about Hama or dissidents.

Journalist Robert Fisk remembers Hama massacre of 1982

So I had to resort to the unofficial schedule, which I did not share with our Syrian hosts. One evening, we sneaked into a brilliant meeting, hosted by Sohayr al-Atassi at her home, where other dissidents were invited to meet with us. Hama and the “Spring of Damascus” were discussed and we left, knowing that Hama was not erased, and there was a capital D in the Arab world worth bonding with that was not “Dubai”.

Then we ended up in Hama. The officials’ talk on the state of politics was less interesting than the cuisine offered to us afterwards. Hama on February 2, 1982, was not mentioned once. But hints to the terrorism of the “fundamentalists” were dropped without much elaboration. Not even when pressed in the Q&A session. I used the break to walk with some students in the back streets of Hama.

The past never dies

Our interlocutor witnessed the massacre and suffered loss and grieving ever since, as he put it in silence. It was he who recited the Quranic verse “wa idha al-maw’udatu su’ilat, bi ayyi thanbin qutilat” [“When the female infant is asked for what sin she was murdered”). Of course, the infant he meant by his Quranic analogy was Hama, which for him, was buried alive.

That was how one elder of Hama sought to deal with grief and loss. He turned in the fashion of all devouts in world, in his case, the noble Quran. He held Hama so dearly and tightly inside him that he likened it to a female child of his own who was buried alive.

It was simple and it was a powerful summary of how states cannot manipulate memory as if it were a news bulletin. It was so moving. And as it was spoken in Arabic, I kept it to myself, opting not to upset the few students who joined me on that walk.  

He said things which were numbing. Evil is the word. He talked of Souq al-Shajrah, the Bashoura neighbourhood, the mosques where killing was banned, according to the Islamic custom. But what upset him was that Hama citizens did not think the troops coming to their city were there to butcher them. They offered hospitality, food and drinks.

The burial of a dead body politic

Hama today is burying the Assads alive. The figures of how many were killed in 1982 no longer matter until Syria is freed from the grip of a sectarian dynasty run still by two brothers, two Assads. Maybe what is needed right now is a rift between Maher and Bashar, a rift such as that between Hafez and Rifaat.

Regardless, Hama stood steadfast and for that it paid a price in 1980, 1981 and then through genocide in 1982. It will be worth it one day. The burial of the Assad dynasty will have been partly thanks to the sacrifices of a city whose waterwheels or norias outlived Byzantine, Mamluke, Ayyubid and French colonists. The current of history, like that of the Orontes, knows when to throw out the foam or scum of the earth.

Thus in the Quran, again, falsehood and scum are destined to perish; eternity is for the “good” that benefit humankind. Hama and its heroic people have contributed much to the good of Syrians, Arabs and humanity. Her dead were buried, still alive in the hearts and minds of millions who today think of freedom and dignity. They are today on a horizon which would never have been opened up without Hama.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009), The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004) and forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2012).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.