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The siege of Hama


Soldiers withdraw after quelling pro-democracy protests.

In the city that defied the dictator, fire engines are washing the bloodstains off the street. Bodies that lay for days uncollected and rotting in the intense August sun have all disappeared. Freed from the iron grip of the security forces, Hama's people had made history for a month, coming together for the largest-ever mass protests against the Assad family's 41-year dictatorship.

For the past fortnight, an older story has revisited itself on the mainly-Sunni conservative population of Syria's fourth-largest city. Like the father from whom he inherited power, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad sent tanks to shell Hama. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad ordered a military assault on the city to crush an armed rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood, killing between 20, 000 and 30, 000 people.

A generation on, since July 31, Hama's residents have been bombed, shot, stabbed and looted by Assad's security forces for having turned out in massive numbers for peaceful, often joyous rallies, filling the city's central squares week after week with colourful flags, posters and chants calling for freedom and an end to oppression.

A reporter who visited Hama recently described it looking as if there had been "a real war for weeks, not a 10-day military operation. "

The tanks that had briefly withdrawn, to allow the Turkish ambassador to visit the "liberated" city and journalists from Russian and Chinese media - the two nations still blocking any binding UN resolution against Syria - to witness the "acts of sabotage" perpetrated by "armed terrorist groups, " were rumbling back in.

Alongside the machine-gun mounted four-wheel drives outside the main Ba'ath Party building, tanks stood watch over a deserted Assi Square, where last month hundreds of thousands gathered beneath a massive purple flag declaring "Long live free Syria. Down with Bashar al-Assad. "

The flag has now been torn down and replaced with graffiti on main streets, witnessed by a reporter for Time, declaring "there is no God but Bashar, " a slur considered blasphemous and deeply offensive by many of Hama's religiously conservative Sunnis.
But though the fire engines hosed down the streets, there was no disguising the dozens of burned out cars and buses, nor the buildings charred by fires after being shelled.

"I cannot forget what Hafez al-Assad's forces did in my city and against my family, " Abu Safwan, a 41-year-old state employee, said.

"I was 12 years old when my uncle and two of his sons were killed and all of my mother's brothers ran away to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, afraid of being arrested and charged with belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood ... What is going on in Syria today is the result of five decades of dictatorship and one-party rule. "

Abu Safwan's neighbourhood of Hader was one of the heaviest hit during the initial bombardment launched on July 31, just as Ramzan was about to begin. "I couldn't leave my house for the first six days. For four days we were without electricity, water and phones, " he said. "We were living under heavy gunfire. I don't want to remember those days. I closed all doors and windows. We felt like we were living in a tomb. "

As the tanks advanced, women and children were led down to cellars while young men tried to defend their streets with makeshift barricades.

"We built the barriers to try and keep them out of our street, " said a 23-year-old trainee doctor. "We knew they wouldn't, but we tried. We know we can't stop tanks with stones. "

Later on, helping his father treat casualties at the Horany hospital, the young doctor would see the corpses of two young men who tried to stand their ground as Assad's tanks rolled over them and their flimsy barricades. "I'll never forget seeing the two guys who were mashed by the tanks, " he said. "One had no legs. The other one, I don't know what I can say. I'll never forget them. "

At least 54 people were confirmed killed by security forces on that first day of the assault, with a further 160 injured. Four days later, the daily death toll had doubled to 109. Overall, activists estimate between 200 and 300 people were killed in the 10-day assault, but an exact figure has yet to be established due to the ongoing security restrictions.

A local member of the Syrian activist network said around 1, 300 people had been arrested in Hama over the past fortnight.
A Western official, quoted in the New York Times citing multiple accounts, said security forces used anti-aircraft guns against civilian buildings in Hama during the recent assault, which US president Barack Obama denounced as "horrifying. "

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