On 30th Anniversary of Hama Massacre, Syrian Troops Lock Down City

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A scene from Hama after the 1982 massacre.

February 2, 2012

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

Thirty years later, Hafez’s son, President Bashar al-Assad, faces a similar issue in Syria’s fourth-largest city, where resentment runs deep. Hama has seen some of the country’s biggest protests, and some of its worst violence since a new uprising began nearly 11 months ago. 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 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.” Three decades later, experts tell FRONTLINE, the regime is still playing by the rules it played by in 1982.

Syrian troops are back out in force in Hama today, closing public squares to keep residents from commemorating the massacre’s anniversary. Activists said firetrucks came to wash away the red paint they had splashed across the city, symbolizing the 1982 massacre.

The United Nations, which had last estimated the death toll to be more than 5,400 Syrians since the uprising broke out last March, announced recently that it was unable to update the figure.

As Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner points out, the latest death toll estimates from the Violations Documenting Center in Syria put the number at 7,054 over the last year, just slightly higher than the most conservative death toll estimates from the Hama massacre, around 7,000 people.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic efforts to end the violence have moved to the United Nations, where the Security Council is in a heated debate over a resolution that calls for President Assad to step down.  Several unnamed diplomats told the Associated Press yesterday that “they were encouraged by a new constructive attitude in discussions and some held out the possibility of a vote before by Friday.”


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