It was in 2004, during the Athens Olympic Games, that Syrians first became acquainted with golden boy Naser al-Shami, the young boxer who managed to bring home only the third Olympic medal in Syria’s history. He had won a bronze, but more important than the medal itself was the fact that this young man from Hama was a complete unknown at the time of his extraordinary achievement. It was said that he had worked as a butcher to support himself as he trained. I am yet to verify the truth of that claim, but the fact is that I believed it, no doubt encouraged in this by the undying image of young Rocky Balboa working in a slaughterhouse to earn his daily crust.
What I remember best about al-Shami is not the tears he shed as he prostrated himself in the ring after beating his Azerbaijani opponent and securing the bronze, but rather his performance in the semi-finals. I remember the smile that never left his face, under a rain of blows from his opponent Odlanier Solis-Fonte, a former world champion and exponent of the Cuban boxing style that traditionally monopolised gold medals at the Games.
Solis-Fonte went on to win the gold with ease, but it made no difference to myself and other Syrians, for whom there was only one hero: Naser al-Shami, the poor, anonymous young man from Hama, semi-professional like all athletes from Syria. His tearful eyes swollen like a child’s he danced around the ring emblazoned with his national flag, beside himself with his all-but-impossible achievement: as Solis-Fonte battered away, al-Shami knew he had surpassed expectations just by reaching this advanced stage.
That was Athens in the summer of 2004.
A few weeks ago, Naser al-Shami returned to the spotlight, though in quite different circumstances this time around. By chance I found myself watching footage of al-Shami on an Arabic-language news channel, hobbling around on crutches and unable to move one of his legs.
This time, he wasn’t in a boxing ring, but a modestly furnished room. There were no tears in his eyes as he spoke to the camera, explaining how the sniper’s bullets had penetrated his leg as he tried to stop a taxi. He told us how a few days previously he had left his training camp in Damascus and returned home to Hama, having refused to participate in the suppression of protestors in the capital’s al-Qaboun neighbourhood. The childlike glee was gone from his face. His defeat seemed to weigh heavily on him, as though he could not take it in: how had he, a boxer, become a cripple? Whose bullet had made him so? No shame being beaten in a fair fight inside the ring, but where’s the justice in this defeat?
Naser plays with his daughter, sitting in his lap. The gloom pervades his features as he tells of how his father was killed in the early eighties, during the massacre in Hama. He was not even a year old at the time. Hafez al-Assad had made this tiny infant an orphan twice over: his father murdered and his city destroyed and stripped of its spirit. Now Hafez’s son Bashar has crippled the defiant young boxer, who shares a tiny fourth-floor flat without a lift with a group of friends that fled with him from the doomed city of Hama to Amman in Jordan.
The tragedy of Naser al-Shami’s story is a savage reminder of how in Syria, history simply repeats its brutality. The victims of the past are shown no mercy by this repetition, but are punished anew, as though their first, barely healed wounds will not suffice.
Hama, unhealing wound
Hama is a torment to all of Syria’s revolutionaries. The city’s suffering over the course of the last year is an embodiment of the broken hopes and lost dreams which made us believe that our best weapon in this new and modern revolution was ‘the image’. The image would prevent the regime from reprising the criminal acts of past decades, embodied in the massacre that took place in Hama itself in 1982.
At the outset, the images that were leaked to the outside world gave us our victories. In Deraa and Douma, then Baniyas, Homs and Salamiya, then throughout Syria, images blurred, shaky, and confused as they may have been, were enough to give those who saw them a clear picture of a people revolting at long last for the sake of their dignity.
They also showed us how the security forces dealt with those calling for freedom from the very first days of the popular movement onwards, before the militarization of the revolution was ever considered, even by the demonstrators themselves.
These leaked images were our strongest support, evidence of the regime’s lack of morality in its confrontations with the peaceful protests. They were our scream to the world, our voice finally restored. But first and foremost, these leaked images were an intimate part of the gamble that we made: our hoped-for immunity against the vengeance of the authorities. No matter how much the regime tried to hide or deny its crimes, to cut off communications and lie, we lay in wait for it. This was our time and these were our tools. We weren’t in the Syria of the 1980s any more: the regime wouldn’t dare repeat its crimes.
At least, that’s what we thought at the time.
A losing gamble
Now, more than a year on from the outbreak of the revolution, with thousands of leaked images and reports documenting the strategies of organized repression employed by the regime, it seems clear that we have lost our gamble.
A whole year has passed since footage was leaked of soldiers and shabiha gangsters trampling on the backs of young men in the village of al-Baida, near Baniyas. When it was released the footage shocked the world, and the regime, uncertain how to deny the veracity of the film, came up with lies that were openly contradictory, before surrendering or at least implicitly conceding that it was real. At this juncture, both sides seemed to recognize that this would be the battleground: demonstrators brandishing camera-phones versus authorities that for decades had monitored, ruthlessly censored and controlled the media and all forms of communication.
The authorities were incapable of rising to this new challenge. They panicked, first telling flagrant, transparent lies, then broadcasting images of their own to counter the narrative of the revolutionaries and their sympathizers. Of course, this was accompanied by the arrest and maltreatment of anyone found taking pictures or in contact with the media. The “mobile phone militia” knew they were the primary target of the security troops sent in to break up demonstrations.
For a long time, all this activity made us more convinced than ever that the image was going to make the difference, forcing the regime to abandon its excessive use of violence. The image alone would deter the government from returning to the dark arts it practised back in the 1980s.
Proofs of impotence
We had grown up paralyzed with fear; our young minds shaped by tales of torture and mass murder. Perhaps the most striking of all these horror stories was the tale of what happened in Hama in the early 1980s during the struggle between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Every Syrian of my generation or younger is familiar with the ambiguous, even misleading, term we use to refer to this massacre: “the events of Hama”. We have no documented proof to help heal this wound and purge our pain, just whispered stories and the unshakeable conviction that if people inside Syria and abroad had known what was taking place over twenty-seven days in the city in 1982, it never would have happened at all.
But what a terrible coincidence! In 2012, with images, audio, and occasionally with live feed as well, the district of Bab Amr in Homs was besieged and bombarded for twenty-six days straight. And as if this is not tragic enough, on the third of February 2012 on the first ever commemoration of the 1982 Hama massacre, another atrocity took place in Homs's Al Khaldyia neighbourhood, but this time, with photographs and video footage.
Not only this, but the very people who seemed able to close their eyes to the images of daily destruction and death in Homs and elsewhere, could not look away when the American journalist Mary Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed during the vicious assault on Bab Amr. Foreign blood had mingled with the blood of Syrians (which, by the way, does not seem worth much on the world blood markets these days).
As these lines are being written, the government’s army is targeting Homs and the surrounding countryside—not to mention a number of other places in Syria—with mortar fire and heavy artillery. Images of corpses and refugees have become our daily bread, not that they are confined to the Arabic language media: these pictures appear in international news broadcasts every day and sometimes on the front pages of respected magazines and newspapers. And it isn’t just Syrian activists and revolutionaries that are responsible, either. Foreign reporters have entered the country, most of them smuggled in, such the British photographer Paul Conroy, French journalist, Edith Bouvier and Spanish reporter Javier Espinoza. There is even a French doctor, Dr. Jacques Beres, one of the founders of Medecins Sans Frontieres.
This time, there is no lack of documentation, no lack of the glossy images that were lacking in the Syria of the 1980s, when Robert Fisk was the lone witness to a city reduced to rubble.
Pictures did not stop the torture, nor did they deter the regime’s killing machine as we wished. Some might say there can be no comparison: estimates of the victims of the Hama massacre range between fifteen and forty thousand. Such numbers are yet to be reached in the current crisis. Documentation of Hama-like numbers would make it impossible for any country (even those complicit in the regime’s activities) to keep silent or make do with international monitors. Others point out that the regime, for these very reasons, has yet to deploy its full military arsenal: it has hardly used the air force at all, for example.
Such arguments are valid as far as the extent of the destruction goes and the number of victims. However, after a year of brutal crackdown, I regard this position as weak, quite apart from rejecting the premise that atrocity can be quantified by counting up the dead, as if a single Syrian killed by a soldier for demanding freedom should not be considered in and of itself a significant event. If we think like that, then what are we to make of thousands murdered for just this, plus twice that figure driven from their homes or detained? How do we reckon the torture and abuse suffered when people are arrested, the torture that continues as we speak, despite the thousands of video clips and photographs exposing the practice?
Today, over a year into the revolution, the impact of the image seems to have undergone a tragic shift. Many Syrians now avoid browsing through pictures and clips of martyrs, murders and massacres, just as they lower the volume on their television sets when they hear pleas for assistance from Khaled Abou Salah, Hadi Abdullah and others, who continue to document and broadcast these tales of death and terror. Their testimonies, which used to thrill us with their victory over the regime’s media blackout, have become proofs of our impotence.
A heavy price to pay
Can we forget that some have paid for these images with their lives? Can we forget that astonishing example of the Syrian citizen reporter, Rami al-Sayyid, who documented the siege of Bab Amr until he, too, fell victim to the merciless artillery bombardment? I am prepared to bet that those of Rami’s comrades still alive and on the run know full well that their phone cameras and Skype connections cannot save them from a sniper’s round fired from a rooftop or some half-rusted artillery shell that has made its lethal way from an army depot to a crater in some Syrian village or urban neighbourhood. Yet despite this certainty they keep going, unflinchingly moving towards their ultimate goal.
Are they even aware that their images and live reports have not, and will not, turn aside the killing regime of the Syrian regime? Most likely, they are. Do they cling to an increasingly hollow hope? Perhaps. Yet without a doubt they also know that they are documenting our pain and impotence, and with it, the failure of the rest of the world, whether lacklustre or actively complicit. They know, too, that they are making a document for the future, for the generations to come that will live, or so we hope, in a different Syria. These citizens will learn how Syrians sacrificed themselves in great numbers, how they paid a heavy price for the future that is their present.
Utopia versus reality
When we assume that documenting events and broadcasting them abroad will deter the regime from repeating its past actions, we are not talking about the image in isolation, but rather depending on the political and popular response it creates. In other words, we were depending on the moral conscience of the outside world. During this time of Arab uprisings we have started to reconsider the possibility of an effective role for this moral conscience.
This is the heart of the problem; our Utopian error, if you will. It seems clear enough now, that the shaming effect of these images—their power of deterrence—is nothing when measured against the impact of a phone call from Moscow, Tehran or Washington and other capitals. These centres of power do not seem overly interested in our images, though they have naturally treated them differently from the Syrian regime, which rejects them wholesale. Even if their decisions have been influenced by leaked testimonies and irritatingly insistent witnesses, such influence remains far weaker than the ‘interests’ of these nations and the pragmatism that governs all their policies.
The image’s failure to deter the regime is thus a failure of which the image itself is innocent. It is better to call it a catastrophic moral failure of all those who ignored it, who were in a position to stop the river of blood. For this reason, today, I believe that our tendency to credit the idea that the regime could not commit certain acts in the age of the image stems from our reliance on the exaggerated claims of past narratives, in which past atrocities were thought to have been possible only because there was no way of proving their existence. Yet this is to ignore the other reasons: international and regional complicity and alliances, even the collaboration of a segment of Syrian society.
This reminds us of the possibility that the Syrian regime shares with other actors the responsibility of keeping the dark deeds of the 1980s under wraps. Neither the regime, nor any foreign government, has ever made any concerted effort to draw attention to these events. In light of current events in Syria, it is hard to believe that politicians and leaders around the world knew nothing of what was taking place in Hama in the early eighties. Equally, there must have been those in Syria who knew, too. Of course, it would have been impossible to have an exact idea of the horrors that were taking place, as we can today, courtesy of the leaked image and modern communications technology. At the same time, however, we also exaggerated when we attributed all the brutal acts committed there to the iron curtain with which the regime prevented the flow of information. Today we know for a fact that such acts can only take place with the complicity, and sometimes the blessing, of others.
Losing our gamble that the image could create an effective deterrent against the recurrence of the excessive, organized violence perpetrated by the regime against its people in the past, is evidence of nothing more or less than the moral failure of international political will. It is the moral failure of regional and international actors who supported the regime, secretly or openly, and furthermore it is the failure of certain segments of Syrian society who apathetically stood by and let it happen. But it is not the failure of Rami al-Sayed, Hussein Gharir, Mazen Darwish, Dani Abdel Dayem or any of the other thousands of journalists, bloggers and citizen reporters who have either lost their lives, been detained, or put themselves at risk every day.
A realistic conclusion
We had hopes of forcing the regime to abandon its violence by defying the media blackout. These hopes have mostly come to nothing and we have no choice, now, but to approach the situation with a more realistic eye.
Slogging through reams of regime propaganda and documenting every last incident in Syria is a task whose ambitious aim far outweighs its current limited impact: it looks to a future time, a time that Syrians pray is near, when such labours will be rewarded.
Stories and films play a pivotal role in writing the history of a country at such a critical juncture. Despite the savagery and pain they contain, they may help in drawing up a new social and civil contract for the new Syria. The challenge here is a formidable one: can we make this visual memory—this memory of shared pain—the necessary step we need to take to finally salve our deep wound, or will we unwisely draw on the bitterness it contains to ensure that the same wound never stops bleeding?
A part of our memory lies lost in a black hole. The agonies of Hama are buried in silence; images of Naser al-Shami’s father and thousands like him who fell before the barbarous machinery of repression ever saw the light of day. Today, the image has failed to prevent a recurrence of that city’s sufferings. It has failed to protect Naser al-Shami. The wound is still open.
Yet the true gamble, the true hope, is that this visual memory can slip from the executioner’s grip to create a future in which we will never again permit such systematic violence to occur, a future free of despotic, tyrannical authorities that act above law, rather than to continue to act as a document of endless pain that may do away with what little remains of Syria’s social cohesion, which is already frayed by long decades of totalitarian and despotic state policies.
The hope is that Syrians will stay the course of the sacrifices and courage needed to bear witness through these images. In today’s Syria, such documentation and testimony derives its value first and foremost from the selflessness and bravery of those who record it. We are indebted to them and we must not forget it, despite the horror of what their images contain.
The hope remains that Naser al-Shami’s father can rest in peace, knowing that his granddaughter has inherited a Syria better than the one bequeathed to his orphaned son. It is the hope that she will live in a city that has buried its pain alongside its torturers and now moves forward, its wounds healed.
These thoughts are dedicated to Rami al-Sayed, Mazhar Tayara and all those who have made, and continue to make, sacrifices in order to document the revolution