BEIRUT: It was once the heart of the revolution. When more than half-a-million people flooded the central Al-Assy Square in a protests calling for the downfall of President Bashar Assad in July last year, it mobilized demonstrators across Syria.
Now, the demonstrations are silent. Essentially in lockdown, government forces have completely overrun the city that residents say now resembles a military base.
“We gave everything to this revolution,” explains activist and resident Manhal Abo Baker of the Sham News Network, from a hideout on the outskirts of the city.
“We dream of the days when half a million people took to the streets, when all the world was behind us.”
The city of Hama holds a symbolic resonance in Syria. The site of a 1982 massacre, when Assad’s father, Hafez, crushed an Islamist uprising there, killing up to 30,000 people, it was also the scene of the largest peaceful demonstrations ever witnessed in an uprising now approaching its 19th month.
The city’s historic place as a center of bloody resistance was cemented when, on the eve of Ramadan last year, government forces stormed the Hama with tanks and machine-gun fire, killing some 140 unarmed civilians.
The level of violence just before the holiest Muslim holiday shocked the international community and set the tone of the Syrian government’s unyielding response to peaceful protest.
Fourteen months on, the uprising has morphed into armed insurgency.
Located in the center of the country on a strategic corridor between the country’s two main cities, Damascus and Aleppo in the north, and with no natural borders, Hama was not going to be relinquished easily.
To the southwest of the city lies the Hama military airbase, which activists and analysts, collecting evidence using video and satellite imagery, suggest the Syrian army is increasingly dependent on as a central point of deployment to other areas of the country.
“We see helicopters and MiGs deploying from the base on a daily basis,” activist Abu Ghazi said, adding that commercial flights with unknown cargo had also been spotted at the base.
Videos filmed in September showed MiGs flying over the city and small passenger planes landing at what was purportedly the Hama base.
After months of shelling and bombardment, rebel Free Syrian Army forces have completely withdrawn from the city center. Some, activists say, still hole up in the city’s outskirts, but most have left to concentrate efforts in Homs, and more recently Idlib and Aleppo to the north.
Residents and activists say well-fortified government checkpoints now punctuate all entrances to the city and all routes to the main city square, making movement difficult and demonstrations nearly impossible.
“The city is occupied. The government is in complete control,” Abo Baker said via Skype from the city’s outskirts.
“Small groups still gather to protest in smaller mosques in side streets on Fridays, but it is very difficult.”
Abu Ghazi, another Hama-based activist, said eight to 10 checkpoints are situated around the central square.
“They prevent anyone from moving into the center of the city,” he said.
A government arrest campaign in the city now sees between 150-200 people detained each day, activists and monitoring groups said – higher than anywhere else in the country.
“When you look around Hama now, you simply don’t see men,” said Abu Ghazi, adding that while many had been arrested, those who were with the revolution had fled to join the armed opposition in Homs and elsewhere.
“It’s a campaign to keep people living in a state of total repression.”
Residents and activists also report daily raids on family houses by government-aligned paramilitary forces, who they claimed also frequently stole from residents.
To the west of the city, in restive Meshaa Alarbaeen, thousands of people were forced to flee earlier this month when bulldozers entered the area, razing up to 300 houses.
Activist videos showed bulldozers flattening entire blocks as government forces looked on.
“In the areas where the FSA was still based, the government issued a law saying these houses were illegally constructed,” Abo Baker said.
Watching as smoke rose from renewed shelling to the east of the city Wednesday, Abo Baker was resolute that despite what he described as a “total siege” on Hama, the revolutionary spirit of the city would not be broken.
“The world may have forgotten us, but the people of Hama have not given up. Hama was free,” he said.
“Now we may be silent. We can’t move and we can’t speak. But no one in Hama supports this regime.”