As we enter the third year of the popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, areas across Syria, including neighborhoods in its three largest cities, lie in ruins. Yet life in the country’s fourth-largest city, Hama, is ostensibly calm.
Compared to the besieged cities and villages surrounding Hama, the town has seen relatively little military activity in recent months. Anti-government demonstrations have drastically decreased in size and frequency, largely discouraged by the government’s stranglehold on the city.
Abo Aleaz Ebraheem, a Hama resident and an opposition activist, describes the current situation in the city as tense due to the heavy concentration of government military, security and paramilitary shabiha forces in the city. According to Ebraheem, armed forces man nearly 230 security checkpoints in Hama, positioned about 300 meters apart. At these checkpoints, cars are searched, people are arrested, women are harassed, and goods are stolen.
The city also hosts over one thousand internally displaced persons (IDPs), a conservative estimate according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Many began pouring into the city a year ago when the Assad government’s fierce attack on Homs began.
Ebraheem considers himself an IDP in his own city. “I lived in Homs for three years, in the Bab Tudmor neighborhood, where I have a house,” he says. Ebraheem, married and father to a one-year-old daughter, was a university student in Homs, and moved back to Hama to live with his parents last March.
Hama held its first anti-regime protest exactly two years ago, on March 25, 2011; the Friday of Pride. Approximately thirty people emerged from Omar ibn Al-Khattab Mosque, chanting in solidarity with Dara’a, the first town to rise up in the Syrian revolution. To those observing from afar, the revolution appears to have died in Hama. Yet the scene was very different not so long ago. Two weeks later, calls for the downfall of the government rang through the streets of Hama.
On June 3, Hama witnessed what became known as the Children of Freedom Massacre, when security forces reportedly shot over sixty protesters. The following Friday, activists reported a complete withdrawal of government forces from Hama, and more than a hundred thousand protestors met in Assi Square, the town’s focal point. The protests continued to grow, and became known as Hama’s ‘million man’ marches. On July 1, 2011, Hama witnessed the largest protest in Syria up to that point, with an estimated half-million people taking part.
After a month-long siege, the Syrian army’s tanks stormed Hama on July 31, the eve of the Islamic month of Ramadan. Activists report that about eighty civilians were killed in the first hours of the invasion. The Ramadan massacre marked the beginning of the government’s suffocating occupation of the city.
“The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was born in Hama directly after Ramadan 2011,” Ebraheem recalls. “At that point, [the fighters] began attacking checkpoints and planting car bombs, destroying the shabiha’s buses.” The government did not respond lightly to these attacks, and began conducting daily raids on residential neighborhoods, punishing occupants for sheltering fighters. Shelling also became frequent. On April 25, 2012, seventy people were reported dead in the government attack on the Mashaa’ Al-Tayyar district of the city. These massacres pushed opposition fighters to withdraw from the city and join battles to its north and east.
To those observing from afar, the revolution appears to have died in Hama. Yet as the third year of the Syrian uprising commences, Hama’s people are waiting for liberation, Ebraheem says. “My personal expectations are that the liberation battle will begin in the next two months,” Ebraheem says, noting that he is ready to bear the cost, including aerial shelling and possible forced displacement.
“I have a conviction,” he says. “We do what we can, and we leave the rest to God. We have a shelter in our building, and I’ve prepared a travel bag and a bag of things for my daughter, including formula, diapers and clothing. I’ve been saving money in case we need it. The rest is up to God. There is no escaping what He’s written for us, and a person dies only when God has willed it. That is my take on things.”
Like others across Syria, Ebraheem may wait for months, or, he may be waiting for something that will never come. At this point, all that is certain is continued uncertainty.