The Ghost of Hama

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

One day at Damascus, in the spring of 1982, the Wall Street Journal’s roving correspondent in the Middle East, David Ignatius, boarded a bus for Aleppo. He didn’t have business in Aleppo, which was five hours to the north, but it happened that the route plied by the bus went through the city of Hama. The town, or what was left of it, had been sealed off since an uprising had been put down there several months earlier, in February, and Mr. Ignatius, one of the most intrepid reporters of his generation, was bound and determined to gain a glimpse.

Even he, already a well-grizzled newspaperman, was not prepared for the sight he saw. As his bus crossed the Orontes River into Hama’s old Muslim neighborhoods, he later reported on the front page of the Journal, the only sound from the Syrian passengers was what Mr. Ignatius called “an occasional muffled gasp.” There was rubble in every direction. Buildings were flattened by artillery fire. Bulldozers were plowing under the debris. Empty shells were all that was left of what appeared to have been apartment buildings, homes, shops, offices and mosques.

The glimpse Mr. Ignatius gained was the first eyewitness report in the West of the remains of the city after an event that has become known as the Hama Massacre. It was perpetrated by the minority Alawite regime of the then president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad. The regime moved in to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, which had ambushed a government security detail. We have been thinking of Hama as a new attempt at a religious uprising is under way in Syria. It could be said that Hama is the kind of thing Colonel Gadhafi would have done at Benghazi, Libya, had an American-led coalition not flown against him.

In the case of the massacre a generation ago at Hama, there had been dispatches even while it was taking place, though not many. A search in Proquest discloses that David Ottaway of the Washington Post and James MacManus in the Manchester Guardian filed, in January, early reports that something serious was happening at Hama. When, in February, full bore fighting broke out, it was reported more widely in the Western papers, though the government denied reporters access to the city and belittled what they were hearing. The New York Times’ John Kifner quoted a government mouthpiece as calling what the reporters were hearing as “expressions of dreams.”

Expressions of nightmares is more like it, and ones that turned out to be all too real. When, in late February, the Assad regime told its side of the story, it spoke of members of the Muslim Brotherhood having reacted to a raid on one of its weapons caches. Brotherhood members, it was quoted by Mr. Kifner as saying, “pounced on our comrades while sleeping in their homes and killed whomever they could of women and children, mutilating the bodies of the martyrs in the streets, driven, like mad dogs, by their black hatred.”

In the massacre Syria unleashed in response, refugees told Patrick Seale of the London Observer, “at least 25,000 people were slaughtered.” When the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman reached the city, three weeks after Mr. Ignatius, and asked a survivor where all the houses were, he was told, “You are driving on them.” When he asked where were all the people who lived there, he was told: “You are probably driving on some of them too.”

Yet one of the remarkable things about the story of Hama is how little comment it provoked in the West. The Wall Street Journal issued an editorial on June 2 noting that “[o]ne of this century’s bloodiest massacres recently was perpetrated at Hama, and went almost unnoticed by American ‘human rights’ advocates.” It saw Syria’s ruthlessness as a warning for Lebanon. A few days later, the Times issued its own editorial, “The Murder of a City,” which observed that governments have employed “many methods to retain power” but that “[r]arely in modern times have these included razing a major city.” And then life — and death — went on in the Middle East.

* * *

Today there is a new crisis at Syria, where, over the weekend, the government was blaming armed gangs for killing 12 people in the northwestern port city of Latakia, according to a dispatch in the New York Times from Michael Slackman at Cairo. He reported that so far at least 61 persons have died “during crackdowns on protesters in several cities.” He reported that Damascus offered “a veneer of calm at a time of great uncertainty” and that speculation about “high-level conflicts swirled as Syrians retreated to their homes, fearful of more protests and more bloodshed.”

Several years ago the Times’s Mr. Friedman, in order to describe the use of brutal force by Arab regimes, coined the term “Hama Rules.” The other day Sky News issued a piece speculating that the days of the Hama Rules are at an end. For our part we have no doubt that the ghost of Hama is on the prowl — but that the ghoul is watching the sky in this new age when America, France and England are prepared to send their warplanes aloft at the threat of a massacre.

The New York Sun

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