On Friday, July 1 as many as half-a-million people flooded the streets of Syria’s central city Hama to participate in an anti-government protest. The turn-out quickly grabbed the nation’s attention as it was the largest demonstration against President Bashar al-Assad’s reign since unrest began three months ago. Late Sunday, Hama’s residents paid dearly for their actions after security forces entered the city under the cover of night, carrying out arrests well into Monday. On Tuesday the security forces returned, breaking through handmade roadblocks and killing at least 22 people, according to the Damascus-based National Organisation for Human Rights.
Anti-government protests in Syria began in the country’s restive southern city Deraa in March, before spreading throughout the country. Struggling to quell growing anti-government sentiment in the country, Syrian authorities have wavered between negotiating with protesters and repressing them. Yet neither the promise of reforms nor violent crackdowns have succeeded in subduing or terrorising Syria’s protesters into silence.
A city of 800,000 inhabitants, Hama is Syria’s fourth largest metropolis after Damascus, Aleppo and Homs. A largely conservative city, Hama has been an icon of opposition against the Baathist regime since the current president’s father, former Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad, ordered a crackdown in 1982 on an Islamist uprising in the city that ended with a massacre of its residents and saw parts of the city razed. The city has since been rebuilt, but Hama remains a symbol of the brutality and the extent to which absolute dictatorships are willing and able to crackdown on their own citizens.
Demonstrations in Hama on July 1. Video published by syria2011901 on YouTube on July 1.

“Hama has a longstanding culture of political protests”

Amar Al (not his real name), 57, is a civil engineer and very active in opposition circles. He explains how Hama has come to symbolise Syria’s anti-government movement over the past few days.
The demonstrations began in Deraa, and other cities quickly followed – Homs, Latakia, Aleppo, Banias, Idleb, Salamiyah, and of course Hama. It was predictable that the protests would be so contagious. Since things took off in Deraa, residents have mobilised in Hama to call for further protests. Once it began, the movement kept growing.
Hama couldn’t avoid getting involved because of its longstanding culture of political protests. The people here have always rejected oppression. History proves it – Hama was on the frontline in the battle against both the Ottoman and French colonial powers.
The protests last Friday were dubbed “Get out!”, and there was an enormous crowd gathered at Hama’s main al-Assi square. Protesters chanted anti-government slogans and called for interfaith unity among Sunnis, Shiites, Alawis, Druze and Christians.
The turnout can be partly attributed to an agreement between the governor and representatives of Hama’s major families. The governor took control of the city’s security forces after the chief of police was dismissed from his duties for excessive use of force against protesters during a previous demonstration on June 3, turning Hama into a bloodbath. Representatives of Hama’s major families were able to convince the governor that the presence of security forces at protests would inevitably lead to stone-throwing and clashes. After receiving assurances that future protests would be non-violent, the governor agreed that the security forces would not intervene during the [June 1] demonstration. We wanted to show the Syrian government and the world that we weren’t a ‘gang of armed terrorists’, but civil and peaceful protesters.
In the end, the scale of our demonstration put Hama in the spotlight. The governor was fired by President Bashar al-Assad. There’s no doubt that the governor was criticised for his lack of firmness, even though he was merely acting on the president’s own call for dialogue. There are rumours circulating that the ex-chief of police has taken over his old job, but it’s hard to know for sure if this is true, even if it seems entirely plausible.
It was very calm over the weekend, but late Sunday night into Monday morning, the police launched a major sweep of Hama. A friend called me at 3:45 in the morning to tell me that his father had been arrested. They arrested hundreds of people and we could hear gunfire everywhere. Entire families went out into the streets to protest against the arbitrary arrest of their loved ones.
Buses entering Hama on Monday, July 4. Video posted by syrrevrag on YouTube on July 4.
Monday morning, at around 10am, about a dozen buses entered the city (Watch the video above]. They were carrying plainclothed security forces who attempted to disperse small pockets of people gathered in the streets with teargas. According to my sources, nearly 25 people were hurt, 16 of them seriously. Nine of the injured were taken to the al-Hurani hospital at a medical facility next to the Palace of Justice. Since Monday, three people have been killed.
When the police withdrew from Hama, the residents began to build barricades around the city to fend off any new military offensives. With the help of burnt tires, stones, pieces of wood and anything else they could get their hands on, the city’s residents were able to block the main roads leading into Hama. There are actually thousands of barricades throughout the city, and its inhabitants are heeding protesters’ calls for a general strike and civil disobedience".
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Mahamadou Sawaneh.