BEIRUT (Reuters) - Emboldened by a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, residents coated many streets of the Syrian city of Hama with red paint Thursday to commemorate for the first time a massacre committed 30 years ago by forces loyal to his father.
Some of the paint spilled into the Orontes river which runs through the ancient city in central Syria and footage posted on the internet showed the river tinged red.
Activists said the paint was a symbol of the blood shed during the 28 days of the assault in February 1982 in which 10,000 people were killed in the city, the fourth largest in Syria with a population of 700,000.
“Our memory was awakened by the crimes that are happening now. It is the same oppression, same torture, same style of killing,” said activist Yasser al-Hamawi, who is from the city but now lives elsewhere.
“It is being repeated now even if on a smaller measure, people will not forget or forgive,” he said.
Hama has become a symbol of defiance against Bashar al-Assad in the 11-month uprising against his rule. Residents, fearing reprisals, had until now not been able to mark the massacre.
The city was paralyzed Thursday, residents said. Schools and shops were closed and employees stayed at home.
Activists said a heavy government security presence, including snipers deployed throughout the city, prevented them from holding demonstrations to recall the day when forces loyal to then-President Hafez al-Assad attacked Hama.
“We did not mark it the way we wanted. The heavy security prevented us from protesting but at least now we can talk about it and it is acknowledged,” activist Mohamed abu al-Kheir said from the city.
The internet footage also showed graffiti which residents said dotted walls in the city, reading: “Hafez died and Hama did not, Bashar will die and Hama will never die.”
The elder Assad was fighting an Islamist uprising in which the banned Muslim Brotherhood and its armed wing, the Fighting Vanguard, made a last stand in Hama. For Sunni Islamist Syrians, Hama is synonymous with an assault on their religion by Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect which they deem heretical.
Thirty years later, his son is struggling to crush a revolt that began with mass demonstrations and now features an armed insurgency, which Bashar al-Assad calls an Islamist fifth column funded and directed from abroad.
The Brotherhood is playing a prominent role in the drive to topple Assad in the present uprising - in which the United Nations says over 5,000 people have been killed. Activists say it has reawakened the memory of the prior killings.
“The Hama massacre was a taboo, people did not talk about it not even between themselves. Those who were killed and disappeared were not mentioned again even inside the family,” said Yaser al-Hamawi. “It was referred to as “the events.””
Abu Ahmad, who was seven when the massacre took place, remembers how Syrian security forces dragged him and his family outside their house and took the men away in military cars.
“We did not see them again, my father was one of them. Thirty years ago a massacre happened that nobody knows about.”
Other activists are attempting to compile a list of those killed, though some of the families of the dead remain reluctant to speak about the events for fear of retribution.
“We are hearing about quarters that we did not know about before, quarters we did not know they existed, they were razed,” said Abu al-Kheir.
Al-Hamawi said the effort to document the events of 1982 produced accounts of rape, summary executions and corpses lying in the streets. “Now we remember so that it will never happen again.”
Reporting by Mariam Karouny, editing by Diana Abdallah