The Syrian military assault on Homs is now in its fourth week with no sign of abating, prompting memories in nearby Hama of mass killings 30 years ago.
Three decades ago, Syrian troops under the government of Hafez al-Assad – father of current President Bashar al-Assad – unleashed a bloody 27-day assault on Hama.
It followed an ambush of soldiers by members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and attacks on officials and alleged “collaborators”.
The final death toll may have reached 25,000, from both sides.
Some 6,000 to 8,000 soldiers were dispatched to Hama in February 1982, according to news reports and information received by Amnesty International.
Old parts of the city were bombed from the air and shelled in order to allow the entry of troops and tanks along the narrow streets.
The ancient Hadra neighbourhood was apparently razed to the ground by tanks during the first four days of fighting.
On 15 February 1982, after several days of heavy bombardment, the Syrian Defence Minister announced that the uprising in Hama had been suppressed. However the city remained surrounded and cut off.
Two weeks of house-to-house searches and mass arrests followed, with conflicting reports of atrocities and collective killings of innocent inhabitants by the security forces which made it difficult to establish for certain what happened. Some of these reports related to abuses, including killings by opposition groups.
Survivors of the 1982 Hama siege have recently recounted to Amnesty International their memories of its horrors, including mass killings and torture.
‘We cannot put my grandmother out to be eaten by the dogs’
Maha Mousa, now 49 and living in London, recalls her experience of the assault.
The military occupied her family’s house and placed snipers on the roof.
She remembers the feeling of revulsion at the sight of dead bodies in the streets outside. When her grandmother died of natural causes during the siege, the family had nowhere to take her corpse:
“We asked the military men in our house what we should do with the body. One told us we should just put it outside our door on the street. But I remember looking outside our window and seeing dogs feeding on the old corpses already all over our street and thinking we cannot put my grandmother out to be eaten by the dogs.”
Even afterwards, survivors still lived under a cloud of fear.
Following the 1982 attack, Maha Mousa’s uncle was accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and arrested.
Despite denying the accusations, he was tortured and killed in detention. When his body was returned to the family, his eyes and fingernails were missing, says Mousa.
She also recounted how in one attack on the city’s Mas’oud Mosque, some 60 men were killed before the security forces cut off their fingers and placed them along the mosque’s walls.
“For around two years after the massacre, no one dared remove the fingers. They were so frightened,” she said. Simmering tensions
The 1982 military assault on Hama was not an isolated incident, but rather the culmination of tensions that had built up over several years between Hafez al-Assad’s government and political opponents.
Survivors told Amnesty International how, in the years prior to the assault, the Syrian military had gradually expanded checkpoints in the city and carried out isolated attacks against the opposition.
But nothing prepared Hama’s residents for the scale and brutality of the events of February 1982.
During the night of 2 February 1982, following the Muslim Brotherhood’s ambush of soldiers, the city’s residents awoke to the sounds of heavy shooting. Over the coming weeks, food and energy supplies to the city were cut off, and the incessant gunfire kept the besieged residents in constant fear.
“Only after five days did I leave my house; I helped bury a pregnant woman and then I returned [home],” said Abd al-Hadi al-Rawani, a former Hama resident who now lives in London.
“On the tenth day I left again, but … I was traumatized to see all the bodies, so I went back.”
Three weeks into the assault on Hama, the military called a pro-government rally. According to Abd al-Hadi al-Rawani, the security forces killed large numbers of those who stayed in their homes rather than attend the demonstration.
“What is happening in Syria now is the same [as] what happened in Hama in 1982; the people want freedom and the regime is suppressing it,” he said.
No longer isolated
While the survivors’ descriptions of military tactics are similar to those being used in Homs and other cities today, the sense of isolation felt by Hama’s residents in 1982 has diminished.
“Now the people have learnt the lies and crimes of the regime – we know how the political security works now,” said Ayad Khatab, who is originally from Hama but now lives abroad.
“Hama is no longer isolated; there is solidarity between different cities. This raises the morale not just in Hama, but all over Syria … they have no fear anymore.”
‘Mohamed’, an activist from Hama who spoke with Amnesty International on condition of anonymity, said that the lack of independent media coverage of events in 1982 resulted in fewer military defections.
But with more eyewitness accounts and video footage leaving Syrian cities via the internet, mobile phones and satellite communications, the tide has changed.
“The biggest difference is that in 1982 Hama was totally destroyed and the villages nearby found out only a week later,” Mohamed told Amnesty International.
“The media is the regime’s greatest fear; that is why the biggest crime in Syria now in the regime’s opinion is supplying information to foreign media.”
‘We live in dignity or die’
Despite outsiders being more aware of the current military assault on Homs and other Syrian cities, the suffering continues.
Maha Mousa relayed a message from a friend who is still living in Hama, where, as in 1982, food and fuel supplies have been scarce in recent weeks.
“They could not kill us with guns and bullets, so they are trying to kill us with hunger and cold,” the Hama resident told Mousa.
“We either live in dignity or die. We all know we will die once … this idea is not frightening. But to live like this we will die a thousand times, that is what is frightening.”
Amnesty International has obtained the names of more than 6,000 people reported to have been killed across Syria during or in connection with the protests since mid-March 2011. Many are believed to have been shot by security forces using live ammunition while participating in peaceful protests or attending funerals of people killed in earlier protests.
In recent weeks, Hama has once again been the subject of a military campaign, including arrests, raids and clashes between state security forces and opposition groups.
Members of the security forces have also been killed, some by members of armed groups, including defecting members of the army who have taken up arms against the government. Thousands of people have been arrested, with many held incommunicado for long periods at unknown locations at which torture and other ill-treatment are reported to be rife.