The Troubled History of Hama, Syria

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The Syrian government has cut off U.N. observers from accessing the site of a reported mass killing that took place yesterday in a village outside Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city.

The Syrian opposition says as many as 78 civilians, half of them women and children, were killed by government shelling and attacks by shabiha, government-backed militias largely comprised of the country’s Alawite minority.

The Syrian government denied responsibility and called the accusations “absolutely baseless,” but with journalists and observers restricted from the area, no one has been able to verify the accounts.

If confirmed, yesterday’s mass killing in the village of Qubeir would be the fourth massacre in less than two weeks, and yet another violation of a largely defunct ceasefire brokered by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan in March.

“Those responsible for perpetrating these crimes must be held to account,” Annan said of the alleged massacre near Hama and another in Houla earlier this month. “We cannot allow mass killing to become part of everyday reality in Syria.”

But for those looking to the U.N. Security Council to act, the outlook appears dismal. Russia and China, steadfast allies of Syria that sit on the council, remain opposed to military intervention.

Hama, the city near where the latest alleged massacre took place, is also where 30 years ago then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad launched what’s known as one of the bloodiest chapters of modern Arab history: the Hama massacre.

Back then, Hama was the stronghold of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and the center of an anti-regime uprising that had been targeting government buildings and minority Alawite military officers for years.

“In 1982, the regime basically said, ‘That’s it. That’s enough. We have to deal with this once and for all. We have to show that we’re in control,’” Syria expert David Lesch told FRONTLINE for our November film, The Regime, an excerpt of which is embedded below.

Estimates vary, but between 10,000 to 30,000 people are believed to have been killed or disappeared in the massacre, which also left parts of the city in shambles. “It looked like a war zone,” remembered Syrian scholar Amr Al Azm.

Since the current uprising broke out more than a year ago, Hama has seen some of the country’s biggest protests, and some of its worst violence. Last summer the Syrian opposition gained control of the city for six weeks, until the government sent troops into the city in August for a brutal assault that killed more than 100 civilians within its first 24 hours alone.

“Hama looked like Cairo. It looked like Tunis. This was a popular uprising,” explained the late New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, who had been reporting from Hama when it was free from government control. “And the government was very threatened by that narrative.”

A scene from Hama after the 1982 massacre.
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