AMMAN, (Reuters) – Three decades after Syrian troops ruthlessly crushed an uprising in Hama, Umm Yasseen is still haunted by the memory of her teenage son being shot dead on her doorstep.
“I started screaming and the Alawite officer who grabbed me said ‘Your son is a criminal. He killed himself.’ I can never forget his face ever, ever, ever,” she said.
The 62-year-old bitterly recalls the February when President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, sent troops loyal to his Alawite minority sect to crush an Islamist uprising in Hama.
“I knew they killed my son after I heard the gunshots,” said Noor al-Asfar, who was then 32, of the carnage that may have killed up to 30,000 civilians. Many parts of the old city were reduced to rubble, including Asfar’s Juzdan neighbourhood.
“In Islam there is no revenge but, God willing, I hope he sees his own children being killed in front of him,” she said.
A generation on, the past resonates strongly among demonstrators in Hama chanting for the overthrow of Bashar while still cursing his father, who died in 2000 after ruling Syria for three decades.
More than 60 people were shot dead during a demonstration in Hama on June 3. In recent days the younger Assad has surrounded the city of 700,000 with tanks and there are fears of another military assault.
Hama’s community of survivors in Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf say they cannot forget the blood-spilt streets, the unattended corpses, the raped women, nor the death squads who dragged youths to execution grounds nearly 30 years ago.
“Twenty four young men were sprayed with bullets in front of my own eyes including a child who was 12 years old. And in five minutes they had picked up the bodies and (only) the shoes and hats were left.
“The ground was a pool of blood. The women came out and one was screaming ‘This is my husband’ and the other shouting ‘This is my son’,” said Umm Omar, 53, as she sobbed.
Abu Rahman al-Asfar, from the Baroodiah neighbourhood of Hama, recounted how his neighbours tried to breastfeed a baby for up to nine days after its mother died, as there was no food available.
Umm Yasseen’s son, 16 years old and religiously devout, was pursued by the mukhabarat — Syria’s secret police — for alleged links with the Muslim Brotherhood whose armed wing, the Fighting Vanguard, made their last stand in the city before being crushed.
“An informant told (the mukhbarat) he was religious…but he was just a kid. What can he be up to at this age?” said the widowed mother. She was forced to flee in April 1982 with her seven siblings, using the same route as thousands of terrified Syrians last month who were fleeing Bashar’s military crackdown.
Asfar said the Mukhabarat would tempt men from their homes using bread. Army trucks packed with corpses were taken to mass graves near the Sreeheen and Sahel al-Ghab cemeteries on the city’s western outskirts.
“Hama was a conservative city and its people were stubborn who defied submission, but the Alawites taught the rest of the country a lesson with Hama. It was a crime to be a Hamawi,” said Suleiman Jamal, who was 21 and lived in the Zambaqi quarter.
Hama’s survivors say they see the same tactics applied by Bashar’s security forces, although on a more measured scale. The government has cut electricity and water supplies, and forced groups of youths tied up on the ground to chant “Long Live Assad.”
Disbelief was mixed with pride among the older generation living abroad over the images of defiant Syrians demanding freedom after the country was swept by protests against the Assad government which has ruled with an iron fist for decades.
“I spent a few days crying…I just wish I was with them to protest with them and vent the deep frustration that is in my heart,” said Aisha al-Jamal, a woman who witnessed the 1982 massacre and now lives in Amman.
The attack razed part of the old quarter of Hama but much of the city has been rejuvenated. Parks have spread and residents sit at restaurants and cafes that line the Orontes River.
Famous for its 17 giant Norias (water wheels) dating back to Byzantine times, Hama has been promoted as a tourist destination by the government and was a popular lunch-stop for tour buses making their way between the northern city of Aleppo and the capital, Damascus.
Before the recent protests swept the country, talking about the 1982 crackdown was taboo in the city as it could be considered sedition by local authorities. Syrians say support for the government remains low in Hama, which has a reputation as the most conservative Muslim city in the country.
But the defiance of tens of thousands of Hama’s youths after weekly protests grew into huge gatherings has rekindled the hopes of Hama’s exiles that an emboldened generation had shattered the barrier of fear created by the earlier carnage.
“The massacres we lived through will not be repeated… because in Hama we were alone and we fled Hama without anyone knowing what had happened,” said Umm Anas, another survivor who escaped at the age of 19 with her family into Iraq.
“When I hear how they chant, and their daring, they give us hope and give us courage,” her niece Noor said.
“This generation is not the same. (The residents of Hama) have broken the fear that was implanted by the regime. It reawakens hope that victory will be in the hands of this new generation.”
Glued to their television sets, both survivors and their children say the scars of the 1982 massacre that left thousands of orphaned children and widowed women will remain for generations.
“Those who are protesting are the orphans. Hafez, the father, killed their parents when they were young and they have grown up and now the son Bashar is killing their kids, the orphans,” said Ahmed Kilani. He was 26 at the time of the massacre and remembers how young men were dragged to the Asiba neighbourhood and shot by an execution squad.
“They are not cursing Bashar as much they are cursing Hafez for the injustice they have endured. These chants are coming from their burnt hearts.”
Umm Hamza said she witnessed her father’s execution, metres from her home after he was dragged by men in black clad uniforms embossed with “units of death.”
“Deep sorrow will remain even if the regime falls. But we hope the joy of victory will alleviate some of our pain.”