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Syria Snapshot: A Fragile Freedom in Hama (Shadid)

Hama, 1 July 2011Anthony Shadid reports for The New York Times:

In this city that bears the scars of one of the modern Middle East’s bloodiest episodes, the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad has begun to help Syrians imagine life after dictatorship as it forges new leaders, organizes its own defense and reckons with a grim past in an uncertain experiment that showcases the forces that could end Mr. Assad’s rule.

Dozens of barricades of trash bins, street lamps, bulldozers and sandbags, defended in various states of vigilance, block the feared return of the security forces that surprisingly withdrew last month. Protests begin past midnight, drawing raucous crowds of youths celebrating the simple fact that they can protest. At dusk, distant cries echo off cinder blocks and stone that render a tableau here of jubilation, fear and memory of a crackdown a generation ago whose toll — 10,000, 20,000, more — remains a defiant guess.

“Hama is free,” the protesters chant, “and it will remain free.”

Freedom is a word heard often these days in this city, Syria’s fourth largest, though that freedom could yet prove elusive. Hama rebelled last month, and the government withdrew the soldiers and security forces seemingly to forestall even more bloodshed, ceding space along the Orontes River that is really neither liberated nor subjugated.

In the uncertain interregnum, punctuated by worry that the security forces might return and fear of informers left behind, Hama has emerged in the four-month revolt against Mr. Assad as a turbulent model of what a city in Syria might resemble once four decades of dictatorship end. In skittish streets, there are at least nascent notions of self-de-termination, as residents seek to speak for themselves and defend a city that they declare theirs.

The sole poster of Mr. Assad in the city hangs from the undamaged headquarters of the ruling Baath Party. Gaggles of residents gather on the curb to debate politics, sing protest songs and retell the traumas of the crackdown in 1982, when the government stormed Hama to end an Islamist uprising. For the first time in memory, clerics and the educated elite in Hama are negotiating with the governor over how to administer the city, in a country long accustomed to a monologue delivered by the ruler to the ruled.

“This is the way a city is supposed to be,” said a 49-year-old former government employee who gave his name as Abu Muhammad. Like many people here, he declined to be fully identified.

Lined with oleander and eucalyptus trees, the road to Hama underlines the depth of the challenge today to Mr. Assad. Tanks are parked inside Homs, to the south. More are stationed at the entrances to smaller towns in between Homs and Hama — Talbiseh and Rastan, where protesters dismantled a statue of Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, who seized power in 1970. At one entrance, strewn with stones thrown by protesters, a slogan says, “The army and the people are one hand.” But the scenes of jittery soldiers behind sandbags and turrets of tanks pointed at incoming traffic suggest an army of occupation.

“Syria is colonized by its own sons,” one resident quipped.

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