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Yesterday I mentioned meeting two Syrians from Hama, Mike and Bob.
I’ve been asked here several times what, realistically, Americans concerned about this can do. I’ll get to that. But I should note what he said to me as completely as I can, first. I have no independent way of confirming the accuracy of this account. But it’s consistent with other accounts that are emerging.
The uprising began on March 31. “We began demonstrating peacefully,” he said. “We were demonstrating for reform, for a democratic life.” There were about 100 of them, from a wide socioeconomic background–“doctors, lawyers.” He’s a car dealer. His English is excellent because his father worked for the UN, he used to work in Dubai, and his ex-wife is Irish. (He imitated a credible Irish accent to prove this point.)
I asked what percentage of those demonstrating were Ikhwan. He said some, but he didn’t think most. They knew better than to demonstrate, both because they knew they’d immediately get their heads cracked and because they knew their presence would discredit the protesters. Their strategy was to keep a very low profile until they thought it would be safe to come out. (This is completely in accord with what you’d expect and what we’ve seen elsewhere in the region.)
“The protest was attacked by about 300 intelligence officers and private police.” (I should have asked for a clarification about what he meant by “private police,” but I didn’t.) “They used tasers on the crowd and arrested about 150 men. I wasn’t one of them. They didn’t torture us that time.”
They were freed on the condition that they promised there would be no new demonstrations. They were forced to sign a blank document–in other words, a kind of carte blanche confession for future use, should it prove necessary. “They told the people they arrested, ‘Forget Hama. That’s the past. Let it go.'”
After that, “We started organizing. We told each other not to be afraid, that there was nothing to be afraid of.” I’m reading between the lines, and should have asked specifically, but it sounds as if they were heartened by the lack of torture–and, I would guess, by the thought that the Egyptians had somehow managed to bring down Mubarak.
They demonstrated again the following Friday, after prayers. “This time the police came with pro-government forces and converted it to a pro-government demonstration.” The following Friday, the security forces positioned themselves in front of the mosque before the prayers to prevent demonstrations.
“We decided that the next week, we would go to a different mosque in a part of the city where the police couldn’t move as freely. This time the police came in with fire hoses. We started throwing stones at the police, who used tear gas on us. So we decided to stop protesting on Fridays: That was too obvious and gave the police too much of a chance to organize in advance. We picked Sunday night because the police would be tired.”
This was one month and two days after it began. That day the police began shooting–not at them, but into the air. He was arrested, along with 209 others. (I asked how he knew such specific numbers; apparently the demonstrators are quite well-organized and connected with each other, well enough to be able to keep careful lists of arrestees.)
“They tortured us with tasers and beatings. They called it ‘lunch.’ Every two hours you ‘come for a meal.’ They wanted the names of everyone who was demonstrating.”
They badly injured his knee. (He said “They broke it,” but I don’t think he’s right–I don’t think he would have been able to walk as well now if they had. Not sure.) He showed me the scars on his legs and his head.
He also showed me a video, apparently taken by someone on their side in the security forces (or perhaps just someone who was bribed — I wasn’t clear about this) of a middle-aged man receiving one of the most savage beatings I’ve ever seen filmed. He said it was taken recently, inside a Syrian prison. I have no way to confirm that independently. He said he didn’t see that himself, but suggested it was typical of what he’d experienced and had seen.
One of his torturers was a kid of about 15, who while kicking him screamed, “Assad is your God! How dare you!” He said this to point out the culture among the security forces and the absolute impossibility of “peaceful reform”–the depravity was too institutionalized. Reform of the kind international observers kept calling for, he thought, was now beyond imagination. “For the Alawites, this is existential–they crush these demonstrations or they die.”
I said to him that this seemed to me an accurate perception. I could not imagine the Alawites would not be slaughtered to the last man if they lost control now. He basically agreed. “I don’t want this and don’t think it’s right” — he wanted to be very clear about this — but he thought I was realistic in saying it. “There will be massacres.They’ve killed people’s sons, they’ve raped their wives. After that, all someone lives for is to kill a thousand people.”
They kept them in jail for eleven days, then released them with the same lecture. “We’re nice. Forget about ’82. And give everyone the message: If you demonstrate next week you’ll be killed. If you want to be like Daraa, you’ll get it.”
I didn’t write it down, but I think this is where he said something seized them — the demonstrators, that is — and they realized that they didn’t care anymore whether they died. “After Sunday, the demonstrations had a new shape. The security forces were tired. I couldn’t walk, because they broke my knee, so I drove in front of the demonstrators to check the road for them.”
He saw that the security forces were waiting in ambush for the demonstrators with machine guns. They shot at the demonstrators and killed 15 of them. “That was May 13. It was another turning point. On the following day, more than 15,000 people came out.”
I asked him how he was estimating of the size of the crowds. He said he was an avid football fan and was guessing based on his knowledge of how many people fit into a stadium. The population of Hama is about 800,000, by the way. He said it was about a million, but other sources put it at 800,000.
“On May 20, there was a massacre. There were more than 20,000 people in Assi Square. Demonstrators were approaching it from every road. I went down in my car. I saw four pickup trucks with automatic machine guns. I have a Damascus license plate, so I told them I was from Damascus and that I was afraid of the demonstrators. So they let me pass. I called everyone and said, ‘Don’t come.’ But there were 20,000 of them, I couldn’t stop them. They said, ‘No, we’re confronting them.’ Everyone had a flower in his hand. They wanted to show that they were peaceful. They shot directly and randomly–85 were killed and more than 500 were injured.”
I asked how he knew how many had been killed. He said those numbers were those they’d confirmed dead. There were only two hospitals in Hama that would accept injured protesters. At the others, you’d be arrested immediately, but those hospitals were run by people sympathetic to the uprising. The security forces didn’t dare surround these hospitals because the optics of that would be so bad. If you were killed outright, you’d just be buried, but if you were injured you’d end up at one of those two hospitals, so it was possible to be fairly accurate about the number of injured. Many had disappeared into the prisons and were unlikely to be seen again, so the number of dead could easily be much higher.
After that, all of Hama went on strike for three days. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat that day, so it’s like a hunger strike. It doesn’t affect the regime; they’re fine.”
He felt this was a turning point in national perception. “Before then, the army had been cracking down on border cities like Homs and Latakia, saying they were ‘stopping foreign infiltration.’ But Hama doesn’t fit in with this story. Everyone in Syria started remembering ’82, saying Hama had been wounded enough in ’82, don’t reopen that wound.”
The organizers of the demonstrations were hoping this would prompt a sympathetic uprising in Aleppo and Damascus. “But Aleppo’s in another continent,” he said (metaphorically). “Damascus said, ‘We’ll think about it.'”
On June 20, he said, half a million demonstrators took to the streets in Hama — in other words, half the city. They had gone from 100 to half a million.
The Friday before last, the security forces began a huge arrest campaign. “They surrounded us with tanks, 500 were arrested. More than 35 were killed. I saw them killing two people. They cut off the electricity and the water.” They knew who he was and where to find him — they mark the ID cards and spray paint the houses of people they arrest. The people who had been arrested before knew they were targeted, so they fled. “We know the police, know their movements. We have people in the security forces who tell us.”
What percentage of the security forces were on your side, I asked?
“One percent,” he said.
He decided to flee to Turkey. He didn’t cross at Hatay. Formally, he’s not here as a refugee, but as a tourist–he bribed a Syrian border guard and crossed at Gazientep. He flew from there to Istanbul, and hooked up with “these guys demonstrating in front of the Syrian consulate” — other Syrians — and somehow hooked up with the IHH, where a lot of the Syrian opposition is finding a warmish welcome.
He didn’t really know what the IHH was. He asked me what IHH stood for, and what I thought of them, and whether they had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t think he was pretending to be naive: His knowledge of Turkey was about what you’d expect of someone who’s been here for a week. He was confused about similar things. For example, he insisted that Turkey’s Alevis were Alawites. I couldn’t persuade him otherwise, but he’ll go back and check it out, I imagine, and he’ll see I was right. That’s quite a common mistake; the names sound familiar, but it’s a big mistake, indicative of being new to the ground and not knowing who’s who.
We spoke for some time after this about what might happen, whether anyone outside could do anything to stop the bloodshed, and what the effect on the region and the world would be. I know that’s the part of most interest to Ricochet. I’ll get to that.
He was groping for any kind of hope, but realistically hopeless. “The whole world wants Assad to stay. Everyone is too afraid of what will happen if he falls.” He was well aware that this fear wasn’t baseless. Overwhelmingly, he thought, the most likely outcome of this was civil war. “There is a huge hatred for the Alawites.”
He stressed that anyone who thought compromise or reform possible at this point was delusional. “They don’t understand the Syrian mentality. Hama doesn’t forget or forgive.”
Bob had joined us by this point. I asked, again, why they were talking to the media. “Governments won’t listen,” Mike said. “But the message has to get out to people. People can make their governments put pressure on Assad.”
I told him that I thought the likelihood of this was close to zero, and I explained why. Bob tried to insist I was wrong.
Mike interrupted him and said, “No, she’s right. I agree with her. She’s right.
“Rationally, there’s no hope.”Published in