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January 19, 2012

Stories from Hama: Memories of Painter Khaled Al-Khani. Part 1

Jan 18

Posted by OFF THE WALL

Introduction by Off the Wall

A painting by Syrian painter Khaled Al-Khani A painting by Syrian painter Khaled Al-Khani

In few more days, the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre of Hama (February, 1982) will befall us. This time, the anniversary has a special meaning as Syrians, who have broken the fear barrier, are now openly talking about the events that transpired thirty years ago in their homeland. We are helped nowadays in that even the dumbest observer can recognize the lies of the Assad regime, and that has made many of us search for the real narrative of Hama, a narrative that the regime has for decades tried to suppress through its demonization of the Muslim Brotherhood, and to hide, by extension, the stories of the innocent victims of Hafez Assad and his henchmen which according to people from Hama, may have reached 40,000 murdered souls, not to mention the rapes, the pillaging and hateful acts of barbarism the aging thugs are now trying to blame each others for.

As the sons of the perpetrators of the Hama Massacre,  helped undoubtedly by some of those who participated in it, now attempt to suppress the current Syrian uprising through similar machination of brutality, lies, and deceptions, it becomes more necessary than ever for us to recover the real narrative of Hama. It is the narrative of the children who witnessed their fathers and older brothers being murdered, of women who were raped and killed in cold blood, and of entire city districts raised to ground out of vengeful hate that shames us all for its existence among our sentient specie.

My friend Khaled Al-Khani, then a seven years old child, is now a renowned Syrian painter. He tells the story of the massacre as he witnessed it and lived it through the murder of his father, his own epic journey with the few women and children who survived Assad’s murderous machine. In this and the next two posts, I will attempt to bring Khaled’s memories to English readers. It is only my way of telling the Assad gang, we will hold those who did it accountable, and we will not allow you to do the same, Never again.

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Stories from Hama (Memories of Painter Khaled Al-Khani) Part I

I do not know what happened to me today…? I don’t want to remain in hiding and I will go to my workshop and to every demonstration. I can no longer hide my real identity. I, the artist, have turned into a rebel ever since the Libyan embassy incident. My transformation has nothing to do with my distant memories, in Hama, of my father’s murder and the death of the city of my childhood, the rape our women, our imprisonment, our bombardment, and the subsequent conquering and forcible displacement of those who were left alive among us to the countryside as means to cover the crimes.

I swear to God I’m not hateful and I am not seeking revenge, but just retribution. My current sorrow is related to what I witness transpiring around me daily. We demonstrate, they shoot us with bullets, we then join funeral processions, and they rain a hail of lead on us. And as we walk once more in the next funeral procession, they reply with the same, and so on. We stay in our homes, they break our doors arresting us and intimidating our mothers, if I am not killed, someone else will be.

I swear to God I love life, but I love justice more. Please, tell me what to do. I do not know what befell me today? Today I remembered, more than any other day, I remembered my father. My father was an ophthalmologist in Hama. He was not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he sided with the people of his ravished city. Believe me, and half the people of Hama testify to that. They gouged one of his eyes while he was a live, then they killed him and horribly mutilated his body. I was little when we buried him and I remember that he had no eyes.

In February 1982, I was a 6 year old first grader. We had just finished the first school semester and had gone on spring break, and what a holiday..  At night, and as we slept, we could hear loud sounds breaking the place’s silence and turning its serenity into a murderous horror.  Obvious was the panic on my aunt who raised me and next to whom I would sleep to compensate her unfulfilled motherhood because she never married, and thus lived with us in our beautiful two-story traditional Arabic home. The rest of my family and my father and my mother slept on the second floor.  Soon, I would hear the voices of my siblings and my father and mother becoming louder coming down the stairs and entering my aunt’s room as the shooting increased. My mother said to my father “Didn’t I tell you to stay on the farm?” For many year, this sentence did not go away from my memories, and the idea that my father left the farm hurt me a great deal and remained with me until I had grown up, forgiven him and  reckoned, It was destiny.

******

The sound of firing fills life. It was the first time I heard its wheeze. It rose further and then began the thunder of explosions. As the hours passed, we got used to these sounds. Time passed and some of the neighbors started flocking to our home. Chaos is everywhere, children crying, women reading the Qur’an, and great concern. This continued for three days, and then we heard a big explosion. Father said that a shell hit the top floor. The house shook as dust filled my lungs like it filled the place and women recited Surat Yassin (the verse of Yassin). Meanwhile, a wave of sharp cries rose and father said we must leave the house as fast as possible, so we went out and people started to gather while shouting. Panic dominated everything, and we went to the house of a neighbor, then to a dark cellar thought by the men a more secure place. There were more of us than the place could accommodate. We stayed there for three days while the firing continued with no stopping. Then an artillery shell, Surat Yassin kept rising all the way to the sky, a second shell and a third, causing the cellar to vibrate madly. While no one of those who took refuge in the basement was hurt, many residents of our neighborhood perished and many were wounded. The doctor who lived in the neighborhood was able to save some. We stayed in the basement until the bombardment and firing calmed down and they got us out saying that we must leave towards safer neighborhoods. Little they knew, for they were wrong as it did not occur to them that a campaign of genocide was taking place. We went out hurriedly through the Hadher market to reach the Ameeriyyah district. We encountered streets through which we had to crawl because snipers were everywhere.

After incredible difficulties, we reached the Ameeriyyah neighborhood having just crawled the last street with my father helping my aging aunt to whose side I was totally stuck. My mother and sisters crossed with the rest of the people, and the three of us stayed. But then my father asked me to leave with everyone and I refused because I wanted to stay with my aunt who raised me. He forced me to catch up with my mother and the others and he stayed with my aunt, and this was the last time I saw my father alive.

In the Ameeriyyah district, we continued to search for a shelter and we found a cellar packed with people, but they could not let us in because our numbers were very large (most of the population of Baroudeye neighborhood). Later, they let my father and my aunt in because they were only two. The refuge in the Ameeriyyah is where my father was arrested and  where my aunt survived to witness and tell of what happened.

****

Our group followed the road towards Northern Ameeriyyah where we found a shelter large enough for all of us. We stayed in that shelter until the arrival of the “Syrian Arab Army” whence the shelter was turned into a prison. They took all the men including young men out of the shelter and promptly executed some of them right at the door and arrested the elderly men. Only women and children remained in the place. Some were crying, while the majority were forced to shout, at gun threat (“with our blood we sacrifice ourselves for you Hafez“, بالروح بالدم نفديك يا حافظ  and  ”O God, it is high time for  Hafez to take your place” يا الله حلك حلك يقعد حافظ محلك) in order to worsen our humiliation. Our imprisonment lasted three days while they murdered whomever they wanted. I swear to God we stayed without food, and I still remember the smell of the place. It was unbearable. We constantly heard screaming voices outside the basement, voices of women being raped, and of and torture that would still visibly affect me whenever I recall or try to describe. Some women had few candies ad Chocolate with them, and before they took the men, one of them brought a few loaves of bread and olives that we shared, and which was barely enough for one man.  Women kept reading Qur’an continuously, albeit in hushed voice.  Then the door opened and they ordered us to get out because they said they will now execute us. We got out as we were shouting “we sacrifice our blood for you …..”, but then they told us that we must head in the direction of the Aleppo Road outside the city.

We walked, raising our arms and repeating what we were told to repeat. The landscape was surreal, the place was full of corpses, swollen, of black blood, and as we moved from one street to another, bodies and destruction were everywhere. We proceeded until we reached the Omar Ibn Khattab Mosque (of which you have been hearing lately as the place where demonstrations to demand freedom started). The Mosque was  destroyed completely, with the washing room being the only section left.  In there, there were some army soldiers who terrified us by pointing their rifles and machine guns at us forcing us to lie face down on the ground. Then they  brought us into the washing room and shut the door tightly. Some women begged the army men to kill us and let everyone else out of the city, but they refused. When we entered the washing room we found fungus covered stale bread that we ate. There were also two ornamental statues of white doves. I do not know why they were there, but to me they signaled the beginning of salvation from the bloodbath. The door remained locked for a day and a half, after which one of officers shouted a speech at us in which he said:

“she who awaits her husband or brother or son or father, don’t be waiting for him because he will not come out alive and will never return.”

They released us in the direction of Aleppo, we walked more than ten kilometers racing against time as we cried and barefoot women kept reading the Qur’an, and whenever we heard the shooting, we instantly lied down, until we reached the point where they had allowed the villagers access to help the survivors. What can I say … I swear by God, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

……….. To be continued

I encourage you to visit the online gallery of Khaled Al-Khani and see how Hama echos resonate in  his work 

Note from OTW: I have opted not to use images of the Massacre and instead to use painting from Khaled Al-Khani’s great work to highlight the tenacity of life despite of the tyrants. Life is what we seek, and the memories of death and destruction brought on Syria by the Assad family will be with us for long time, but hopefully only in the sense that will motivate us to prevent such atrocities from hapening again, not only in Syria, but everywhere.
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The Maysaloon Syria Digest

The tension that is building up in Syria will, I suspect, shortly reach a climax. I have never seen the Russians appear as adamant about their position regarding any country in the world as they are now with regards to Syria. Arms shipments and the threat of vetoing any security council resolution condemning the Syrian regime and potentially leading to armed intervention there, are all providing the regime with the diplomatic cover it so desperately needs in order to ensure its survival. The counter-revolutionary rhetoric, what with people citing dubious polls claiming Assad still has the support of 55% of the Syrian people, or horror stories of sectarian strife, are all reaching fever pitch and I suspect this is in anticipation of some new development that we can expect.

Obama’s latest statement condemning the Syrian regime and asking it to step down, and after such a long period of quiet, might be a sign from the White House for another diplomatic bout of thrusting and parrying with the allies of the Assad regime. Watch the Turks and the Saudis closely for further statements in the next few days, and probably another attempt to get something pushed through the security council. I don’t know how wise it would be to push for such a resolution with Russia guaranteeing it will veto anything and everything that might endanger Assad’s rule internationally.

On other front’s, al Jazeera is once again claiming that it’s signals are being jammed from locations in Syria and Iran, which I suspect is true as Gaddafi’s regime had also tried to jam the station’s satellite broadcasts. This is probably meant as a way to hassle to the station, which has been condemned by the Syrian regime and those who sympathise with it that it is now merely a propaganda channel. Ultimately, it is unlikely that any foreign intervention in Syria is going to take place any time soon, and even if it does take place, I’m not so sure how much better it will be for the country.

The other alternative, civil war, is being played out slowly but surely. The so-called Free Syrian army has been mounting bolder attacks, and has been maintaining a stout defence in Homs, the heartland of the Syrian revolution, as well as in the Zabadani and Madaya suburbs of Damascus more recently. It’s not clear how much longer they can maintain this, but I think the steady trickle of defections that are happening could start turning into an avalanche if this situation continues. On another front, the Syrian currency has recently sunk to a jaw-dropping low of 70.5 Syrian pounds to the dollar. Any more than that and the Syrian economy will start to go into free-fall.

I think all this discussion and condemnation of international intevention is a moot point. If this situation continues the way it is any longer, without one side trying to end the stalemate in its favour, then this regime could implode. Hezbullah daren’t get itself embroiled into a Syrian civil war and stretch itself with Israel lurking just south of the border, and Iran, with all its enthusiasm, is too far from Syria to do anything more than token support and advice. We’re not going to see divisions of the Quds brigade airlifted to Damascus just to prop up Assad, though we could start seeing a bigger spurt of suicide bombings, explosions and assassinations. Still, the country is crumbling under the political crisis, and whilst Assad is preparing to dig himself deeply for a long fight, he might find himself a prisoner in his own palace, as he faces not just defected Syrian soldiers, but the economic influence of the wealthy, bourgeois, Syrian diaspora who are enthusiastically supporting the Syrian revolution.

In the meantime, the Syrian regime has utterly failed in crushing the demonstrations that have been the lifeblood of this revolution. I’m watching further demonstrations in Deraa, the town where this all started, on al Jazeera right now. At the start of the Syrian revolution the Syrian army carried out a brutal operation that was meant to punish the rebellious inhabitants, and yet the people there are now demonstrating again. Assad can’t impose his will on the country anymore, and there are few places where he or his father’s statues or posters are hung up without risk of defacement. If Assad does survive this period, then it will be as a warlord, and not as a president.

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