Memory of 1982 massacre casts a pall over Hama, Syria, as town rebuilds

Entering on the road from Damascus, one at first sees little of the horror that struck Hama in February of 1982. People throng the streets as before. The shops buzz with humankind as before. Old men sit around drinking coffee and tea as before the reported massacre, in which government troops were said to have killed thousands of Hama residents.

The walls that line the major road from the center of town heading toward Aleppo are new. And the slogans are freshly painted:

''Long live President Hafez Al-Assad, the hero of October,'' ''The youth of the Baath Party greet President Al-Assad, and hail his struggle against Zionism and imperialism,'' ''Revolutionary Syria will not fall on its knees.''

The walls are made of thick concrete blocks. One gets the feeling they are there not so much to prevent trespassing as to discourage viewing what is behind them, for, indeed, they are taller than eye level. Although crowds are walking alongside them, whether from apathy, sadness, or fear, no one appears to be straining to see over them. But from the car one can see.

At first glance, one finds a scene that could have been lifted from west Beirut: shells of buildings, walls bare of all but the commonplace small-arms and mortar holes, and bulldozed lots dotted with patches of weeds and occasional bits of rubbish. But unlike in Beirut, children are not playing on that side of the wall and adults do not walk there. No one wants to answer questions. It is as if it never happened. Until you look.

The old city is gone. An eerie, peculiar kind of urban renewal has taken place. In fact, there are already many new buildings replacing those that were destroyed. The water wheels on the Orantes River that flows through Hama are still in place and turning. But whereas in the past the sound of the water slushing over the wheels was absorbed by the centuries-old houses in the core of the ancient city, now the water echoes in the emptiness created by the impersonal concrete structures.

Citizens and news reports differ in their estimates of how many Hama residents lost their lives two years ago. High figures are 22,000, but most inhabitants place the number at 15,000.

A Middle East scholar in Damascus recalls it this way: The Muslim Brotherhood , long thought to be massed in Hama for months before that February, had been assassinating activists of the ruling Baath Party and other highly placed Alawites. (Assad and his family belong to the minority Alawite religious sect.)

When the Assad government decided to eradicate the seat of the Muslim Brotherhood, young and rather inexperienced Brothers sincerely thought their allies in Aleppo, Tripoli, Homs, and Damascus would rise simultaneously in their respective cities and in alliance with Hama.

Meanwhile, Brothers went door to door throughout Hama assuring the residents that the time had come to overthrow Assad and that the Brothers had the popular support and the physical wherewithal to do so. They offered the older residents provisions, actually going to and from homes and stores, delivering purchases.

Such services were not offered long. Whether the Brothers realized their error in judgment will never be known because most of those who were in Hama number among the dead. Government troops hit with a force and planning that comes only with professional timing and experience. They surrounded Hama from the center to the north, using munitions that would laugh at small arms, were it possible.

Incredulous residents had little time to evacuate. Perhaps they still had faith in the Brothers. Men, women, and children were killed in the indiscriminate shelling and resultant street fighting. Many people, especially young men, were reportedly killed in mass executions.

The scholar with whom this correspondent spoke feels the Muslim Brotherhood was exterminated also, and that chances it could regain its pre-February 1982 strength are slim.

One may wonder how long Syrians will remember the slaughter in Hama. But given that Syrians still speak of Hama as the city that led the purge of French occupation forces from Syria in May 1945, it seems unlikely they will soon forget the massacre.

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