The UN says more than 2,200 people have been killed in Syria in the six-month-long crackdown on anti-government protesters. And despite growing calls by the Western leaders for Bashar Assad to step down, he says his regime is not in danger.
The city of Hama is around 200 kilometers north of the capital Damascus. A religiously-conservative, Sunni-dominated city, it has been one of the centers of religious tensions in Syria for years. In 1982, during the current President Bashar Assad’s father rule, this city saw a bloody massacre. Amnesty International says over 10,000 people were killed in the regime’s crackdown on the city’s Sunni population.
During the present conflict, Hama has been among the last to join the national uprising. The army was sent here in July and withdrew 10 days later. So what does the situation on the ground there look like since the troops have left?
On the first part of RT’s journey the road looked surprisingly normal for a war-torn country. But the road to Hama goes through Homs, the city where activists have been reporting dozens of civilian deaths over the last few months of violence. And the closer to the city, the more dramatic the scenery becomes, with checkpoints appearing along the highway.
A while later, RT’s bus catches up with a military convoy – the troops apparently returning to a nearby base after the operation in Homs was officially over. They stop the bus, but not for long.
At the entrance to Hama all cars are subjected to checks. So far, it is the only reminder of the recent unrest.
There is a bridge in Hama that became infamous after it appeared in an amateur video posted on YouTube showing dead bodies being thrown into the Assy River. Comment accompanying this video said that they were the bodies of Hama residents killed by security forces, while Syrian TV reported they were policemen.
Despite the president’s vow to end all military operations against anti-government protestors, recent reports suggested the army is still being deployed in several cities across the Syria, including Hama.
RT’s crew mistakes a man at the checkpoint for one of the soldiers, but he is just a police officer wearing armored protection – a measure introduced following the dramatic events in the area.
The Officers’ Club in the center of Hama is a sorry sight. Officials are saying it had been attacked by an extremist group shortly before the army entered the city. They say the militants set the building on fire and killed at least 20 officers who were inside the building.
“The army came to remove barricades, and behind these barricades there were armed people, not peaceful demonstrations, and there were clashes between them and the troops,” says Anas Naem, the Hama governor.
While the governor is sharing his views on the events, a crowd gathers outside his residence.
Their slogans sound neutral at first: “We are not afraid, God is with us.” But it all changes in seconds: “People want the regime to fall!”
What people start saying gives a completely different picture. “We’ve been living for a month-and-a-half in peaceful demonstrations, but when the army entered the city all the killings started,” a local resident told RT.
“This night I may not be sleeping at home, I may be sleeping in prison,” says another.
Officials though put all responsibility on the people themselves.
“They have the right but these people just don’t want to give the government time to do reforms. The reforms cannot go through in such an atmosphere,” Naem explains.
RT’s journey to Hama has been a part of a so-called “Syria is fine” tour – as the country’s government attempts to portray the situation – but no matter what the initial goal was, it all appeared to be quite different.