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NYT’s Shadid: Syrian City of Hama Between ‘Subjugation and Liberation’

July 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The pattern of protests and crackdowns in Syria continued Friday when thousands marched in several towns, including Damascus, Homs and Hama. Activists report at least 11 killed by security forces. Jeffrey Brown discusses the ongoing violence with The New York Time's Anthony Shadid.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a rare inside look at life in a Syrian city in revolt, even as the country’s turmoil and violence continue.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: For nearly five months, the Friday faithful have left mosques across Syria and taken to the streets in ever-larger protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Today, the pattern of protests and crackdowns continued. Thousands marched in Damascus, as the capital braced for the state-directed violence that has wracked other parts of the country. Demonstrations were also reported in Qamishli, Latakia, Idlib, Dara’a, Homs, and Hama. At least 11 people were reported killed by security forces, including five overnight in Homs, north of the capital. Tanks were deployed to stop marchers in the besieged city.

In all, according to human rights groups, since the protests began in March, more than 1,400 civilians have been killed. In Hama today, the streets teemed with marchers. Protests there have a special resonance. It was the site of a massacre of at least 10,000 people in 1982 ordered by Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president.

Anthony Shadid of The New York Times was able to report from Hama earlier this week. I talked to him from Beirut this afternoon.

Anthony, take us into the city of Hama. You describe a place feeling a kind of freedom for the first time, but a very tense one, given its history.

ANTHONY SHADID, The New York Times: Hama is Syria’s fourth largest city. It’s a significant place.

And since last month, when security forces withdrew, you have seen a — I think a notion of freedom emerge there. The way I described it earlier was that it’s in an interregnum maybe between subjugation and liberation. People are very scared of what is ahead. They worry that the government might try to retake the city.

But in the meantime, you have an open space. You have people gathering on the sidewalks, debating the issues of the day, singing protest songs, talking about the youth and their organization. You have youth themselves who have organized. They have built probably 100 barricades on roads throughout the city. Now, some of those barricades have been opened on the main streets, but most neighborhoods are cut off.

These barricades are meant to block the return of security forces. And that fear of arrest is still very palpable. At night, you see protests gather, almost nightly, sometimes as late as 1:00 a.m. in the morning.

And then of course, on Friday, we have seen scenes of hundreds of thousands of people gathering in downtown Hama. It’s — for the first time I think since this uprising began in Syria, we’re seeing scenes that are at least redolent of what we saw in Cairo and Tunis, those mass demonstrations in places like Tahrir Square.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does the protest seem to be organized and have known leaders? And what about average people you met? Are they caught up in this or are some holding back?

ANTHONY SHADID: It was a question I asked a lot of people when I was there.

One person — and I thought he probably gave a pretty accurate representation of what was going on — suggested that 80 percent of the city — again, it is a city of about 800,000 people — he estimated that 80 percent of the city were with the protesters, against the government. Another 20 percent were, you know, opposed or unsure. Some businessmen have had reservations about a strike that’s been going on in Hama that’s closed shops for two weeks.

So it’s not universal, by any means. There are divisions still in the city. But I think what is remarkable in Hama is, over the, let’s say, month-and-a-half since security forces withdrew, you are seeing new leaderships emerge. You see a prominent cleric in the town negotiating on behalf of the residents with the governor.

You see youth themselves trying to come together in committees, trying to organize the defenses of the city, document the missing and the killed in these protests, and also chronicle the demonstrations themselves for posterity.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote a fascinating piece about the emerging popular culture that’s helping to drive the protests, including a song that came out of Hama and has caught on around the country, a kind of chant with the refrain, “Come on, Bashar, leave.”

We have a short clip.

(CHANTING)

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Anthony, tell us about this song.

ANTHONY SHADID: You know, the youth told me that they had started growing bored with the old slogans. They said the speeches weren’t much better.

And once they were able to actually gather in the downtown square in Hama and spend hours there, they tried to come up with something that they could fill their time with. And what you saw was a — was a plethora of songs that started to be written.

And the most famous of them is that one that you mentioned, “Come on, Bashar, leave.” Now, it has a story, kind of a backstory on its own. There was one man named Ibrahim Qashoush, who became somewhat prominent in singing these songs at the demonstrations. Earlier this month, he was arrested or detained, kidnapped, however you want to describe it.

And the next day, his body was pulled from the river. He had been shot. But the detail that most residents in Hama focused on was that his throat had been cut. And not only had his throat been cut; his vocal cords had been ripped out.

I think a lot of people in Hama saw this almost as a metaphor of the essence of decades of dictatorship. Here is somebody, for simply raising their voice, for speaking out, suffered an abominable crime. His vocal cords were actually ripped out.

Since his death, the song has become even more popular. You see people in neighbor Homs singing the song. When I was in Hama, I met a kid as young as 6 years old who had memorized the lines by heart. And there’s this remarkable scene that happened in Hama last Saturday night, when old men were gathered on this curb, drinking tea, sharing cigarettes, and the 6-year-old boy — actually, I take that back — it was an 11-year-old boy, another one who had memorized the song.

He started chanting it, and these men many times his age offered the refrain back to him, “Come on, Bashar, leave.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, on the one hand, you have this new sense of freedom in Hama, but the army presence has continued all around. And, today, there was a new round of crackdown, including in the nearby city of Homs. Do you see any pattern to government actions and reactions?

ANTHONY SHADID: You know, it’s an interesting question, because I think you are seeing some kind of pattern emerge.

Now, we have to remember Hama, the city that I visited, was the scene of one of the most brutal crackdowns in the modern Middle East back in 1982. So that memory of what happened in ’82 is very visceral in Hama. And I think the government is aware of that also, and it’s perhaps made them reluctant to go back into the city.

You have another situation out in eastern Syria, a place called Dayr az Zawr. It is inhabited by extended clans, clans that have loyalties across the border in Iraq and also exercise a certain independence. Again, it’s another city where you have scene security forces withdraw from. The army is not willing to go in there.

And we have also seen huge demonstrations there, again, tens of thousands, perhaps more. Those cities seem to be their own issues. They have their own backstories, in a way. And the government seems reluctant to intervene. That’s not the case in the suburbs of Damascus, of course, the capital itself, a symbol of prestige for the government.

It’s not the case in Homs, which is a mixed city, a Sunni Muslim majority, but also an Alawite minority. And that minority is from which — is the sect from which the government draws a lot of its support. Those seem — those places seem much more sensitive to the government.

And I think what we’re seeing emerge maybe in the past few weeks is — is at least an indication of where the government is going to make its stand, that Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two largest cities, are too important to let go, the way that Hama and Dayr az Zawr did.

Cities of mixed ethnicities and sects, Homs, for instance, the coast as well, again, these are going to be places that the government will fight, and perhaps fight until the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, Anthony, the international community has recently taken some steps to isolate President Assad. Are there any signs of that having an impact?

ANTHONY SHADID: You know, I think there’s still a deep fear on the part of the United States, Europe, even Turkey, which neighbors Syria, about what would happen if Bashar al-Assad fell, what would happen in the wake of his government’s collapse.

That still seems to be the operative notion out there right now. And it was remarkable to me. When I was in Homs and Hama talking to people, there very much is a sense of being abandoned by the international community. As one protester put it, “We’re a revolution of orphans.” And it was a sentiment that I heard repeated time and again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anthony Shadid of The New York Times, just returned from Syria and joining us from Beirut, thanks so much for talking to us.

ANTHONY SHADID: My pleasure.