BEIRUT — A Syrian city that was bombed into submission three decades ago after a crushed uprising became a new center for protest and violence Friday, as activists said troops opened fire on a crowd of thousands and killed at least 34. Still, people nationwide poured into the streets in unprecedented numbers, defying the crackdown and a government chokehold on the Internet.
One of the largest protests calling for the ouster of President Bashar Assad was in Hama, where Assad’s father killed thousands in 1982 and emerged to rule uncontested, the carnage seared into national memory.
“It is a real massacre,” said a witness who took part in Friday’s Hama protests and fled the gunfire. “People were running, shouting. We ran up to people’s homes and hid there until the gunfire died down,” he said.
Friday’s protests appeared to be the biggest since the uprising began in mid-March, with people gathering in ever larger numbers in cities and towns across the country, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Protests also swept through several Damascus suburbs, as well as the capital’s central Midan neighborhood, which has seen demonstrations in recent weeks.
The movement has been loosely organized on Facebook pages and increasingly inspired by footage of the crackdown on YouTube and other video sharing sites, but Friday’s Internet cuts appeared not to deter participants. Abdul-Rahman said the increase in protesters reflected the lack of trust in any government concessions, including a call for national dialogue.
In Hama, the witness and activists said at least 100,000 people took part in the protest, making it one of the largest in the city since the start of the 11-week uprising. Thirty-four people were killed, said Abdul-Rahman.
Rights groups say more than 1,100 people have been killed nationwide since mid-March.
“Today’s protests are a reaction to the so-called overtures by the regime which has lost all credibility. It’s the people saying we will not accept this anymore,” said Najib al-Ghadban, a U.S.-based Syrian academic and political activist.
Al-Ghadban said the Hama demonstration was especially significant, calling it “a qualitative leap that will encourage others to do the same.”
He said most of the protesters were born after the 1982 massacre and do not harbor the same fear as their elders. “They heard about it, which is positive because it makes them more bent on keeping their protest movement peaceful. They don’t want a repetition of the massacres.”
“You cannot separate what happened in 1982 from what is happening now. It’s the same trend, but of course the world has changed so it cannot be on the same scale,” he said.
The Syrian Brotherhood, a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist movement, led a violent campaign against the government of Assad’s father, late President Hafez Assad, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Assassinations and bomb attacks killed hundreds as the group attempted to install Islamic rule.
In 1982, Assad’s army crushed a Sunni uprising by the Brotherhood in Hama over a three-week period, flattening much of the city and killing 10,000 to 25,000 people, according to Amnesty International estimates.