Something was stirring in the Syrian city of Hama. The Assad regime appeared to be losing control; it had issued vague warnings about an Islamist takeover, but had gone ominously silent for over a week. A government-planned trip to the city was canceled. Syrian officials warned privately that any attempt by intrepid journalists to visit Hama would be "life-threatening."
It was February 1982, but the parallels to Syria today are striking. During that bloody month nearly 30 years ago, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members rose up in the city, killing hundreds of troops loyal to the Alawi-led regime of President Hafez al-Assad. In response, Assad conducted one of the most chilling acts of retribution in the modern Middle East: Forces under the command of his brother, Rifaat, leveled entire neighborhoods of the city, killing an estimated 20,000 people.
Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce -- but he never traveled to Hama. Syria's fifth largest city, enraged by the brutal murder and torture of a 13-year-old boy in May, rose up again this year, and again a dictator bearing the surname Assad appears determined to use overwhelming military force to quell the rebellion. In the intervening three decades, new tools have helped the media circumvent some old problems in covering the Middle East's civil wars. But while the coverage today provides a clearer picture of events than it did in 1982, serious gaps still remain in the world's understanding of developments in the besieged city.
Hafez al-Assad's crackdown on Hama began in the dead of night on Feb. 2, 1982, and continued over the next month until every neighborhood in the city was subdued or destroyed. While reporters stationed in Damascus were acutely aware that a bloody insurgency was underway in the city, they had little sense of its scope. On Feb. 24, the Associated Press quoted Western diplomatic sources saying that the fighting in Hama had "resulted in an estimated 2,000 casualties on both sides" -- an approximation that grossly underestimated the number of people killed.
It was not until a year and a half later that reports of the Hama massacre's true extent filtered into the international media. Amnesty International's November 1983 report estimated that 10,000 to 25,000 people had been killed during the crackdown. The report also contained chilling details about the Assad regime's methods of coercion. "I was stripped naked.... My wrists were then tied and I was hung up and whipped on my back and all over my body," recounted a Syrian trader detained in 1980. "I was beaten on the toes until my nails fell out."
Even then, Hama did not become a byword for the brutality with which Middle Eastern autocrats treated their subjects until the publication of Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem in 1989, which offered a blow-by-blow account of the massacre. Friedman recounted a conversation he had with a friend -- a businessman who had been involved in several deals with Rifaat al-Assad -- who said that the Syrian general had pushed back against some estimates of those killed as too low, not wanting to erode the fear that the Assad regime had instilled in the Syrian population. "What are you talking about, 7,000?" Rifaat reportedly said. "No, no. We killed 38,000."
But Friedman's and Amnesty's reports were released long after Assad had consolidated his control, rendering their impact in Syria largely moot. At the time, reporters were not only constrained by the media blackout -- they also had to contend with that old standby, fear of government retribution. On March 4, 1982, Washington Post assistant managing editor Jim Hoagland described the difficulty journalists in then Syria-occupied Beirut faced in reporting on the unfolding struggle. "One British journalist working the Middle East is convinced that some senior Syrian authorities did make a deliberate decision nearly two years ago to silence press critics," he wrote, the result of which was the assassination of several Lebanese journalists and the shooting of a Reuters correspondent. "[T]he perception of danger has spread throughout the Beirut press corps," Hoagland concluded.