It Will Not Happen Again
Two posters juxtaposed.
A man impossibly crammed in a cage. “They struggled for our freedom,” reads the text, “so let’s struggle for theirs.”
Beside a noria, one of the ancient water-wheels of the ancient city of Hama, a child writes on a wall: “It will not happen again.” The phrase combines bitter irony and fierce defiance, for even as we read it we know that it has happened again, it is happening, and ten or a hundred times worse.
In 1982 there was a massacre in Hama. Its memory haunted and silenced Syrians until 2011. The massacre was a success for the regime, and therefore a model for its current policy.
An anti-regime movement began to organise in 1978. It wasn’t a mass movement of the scale and breadth of the 2011 revoution, but it included leftists, nationalists and democrats as well as Islamists. The regime responded with a dual policy of extreme repression and radicalisation of their opponents, murdering, torturing and imprisoning them en masse. By 1982 not much was left of the movement other than the radicalised armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood which, mixing stupidity with desperation, took over Hama by force of arms.
The regime welcomed the confrontation as an opportunity to teach the country an unforgettable lesson. Making no distinction between civilians and insurgents, its army levelled the city’s historical districts with tank, artillery and aerial bombardment. With churches, mosques and markets burning, its soldiers went house to house, riddling whole families with bullets. Estimates of the dead range from ten to forty thousand. Many thousands more were killed elsewhere in the country.
Thousands of political prisoners were thrown into the country’s dungeons. Hundreds were hanged, shot, or otherwise murdered inside. The rest languished for decades without sufficient food, medical care, any comfort or hope. Their relatives feared to ask after them.
This terrible example kept Syrians silent for decades. But in 2011 the long silence was broken. Then the regime followed the path Bashaar inherited from his father Hafez, the path marked out in the early 1980s, the one which ends in Hama.
In the spring and summer of 2011, even as it was rounding up tens of thousands of non-violent, non-sectarian activists for indefinite detention, the regime released 1500 Salafi-Jihadists from its prisons. In 2012 it organised sectarian massacres against Sunni villages, provoking a hardening of Sunni discourse, which in turn scared many minority communities into solidified loyalty to the regime.
It applied scorched earth and aerial bombardment to the territories it could no longer control, and this provided the vacuum in which foreign Salafist-Jihadist groups could flourish. It brought in Iranian-backed Shia militias to fight rebellious Sunni communities. For months it bombed absolutely everything except ISIS. Even today, when ISIS is fighting the revolutionary militias, Assad bombs the revolutionary militias. So he seeks to divide and rule.
Addressing the West, an arsonist dressed up as a fireman, Assad claims he’s essential to the new War on Terror. Russia too, it first claimed its bombing campaign in Syria was aimed at the terrorism which strikes Europe, but over 80% of its bombs have fallen miles from ISIS targets, on civilians, and on schools and hospitals, on buildings run by democratic local councils.
The regime bombs as it did in Hama, and as it arrested, imprisoned and tortured then, so it does now.
Since the protests erupted, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have experienced the torments of the Syrian gulag. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, at least 65,000 people are currently missing in unofficial detention centres. Amnesty International “estimates that 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria since the crisis began in March 2011 – an average rate of more than 300 deaths each month,” victims of torture, infection, and starvation. This is part of the reason the UN Human Rights council has accused the Assad regime of ‘extermination’. Amnesty International also calls for UN access to prisons in order to ascertain the true number of victims, which is undoubtedly far higher.
How to describe the humiliation and fear of torture? Best to listen to those who’ve experienced it. There are many worse accounts than the one below by Maher Arar.
During George W Bush’s administration, Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin, was arrested at an American airport whilst in transit to Canada from a holiday in Tunisia. He was sent to Syria, a victim of the secret ‘extraordinary rendition’ programme, where he was repeatedly tortured during a year of detention. A Canadian commission later cleared him of all links with terrorism. The United States has never apologised.
“I can’t describe in words what I experienced,” Arar said. “Only a person who has been tortured can understand what it means to feel so helpless and defenseless … I can tell you that during the first couple of days of the interrogation I was beaten with a thick cable all over my body, especially on my palms, my back and my hips. They beat me with the cable three or four times and then asked a question; if I hesitated to answer quickly they beat me again. This continued on and off for sometimes 18 hours. In between interrogation sessions I was placed in a waiting room where I could hear screams of other detainees who were being tortured. After three or four days they mostly used slapping, punching and hitting me on the back of my neck. They also threatened me with ‘the chair’ and electric shocks. At the end of every day they told me the next day would be worse so I could not sleep. I was placed in an underground dark cell, one metre by two metres, for ten months and ten days. The food was very dirty and of poor quality and as a result I always had diarrhea. I lost about 20 kilos before they transferred me to Seydnaya prison.”
The massacre of 1982 is happening again, but on a far greater scale. Half a million are dead so far. Twelve million – more than half the total population – are displaced. The will to stop this happening, to neutralise the recurrent curse, is one strain animating the revolution.