Introduction to Part 2.
We continue with the memories of renowned Syrian painter from Hama, Khaled Al-Khani. In this segment, Khaled mixes his memories of events he witnessed, as a six-year-old child, with those he heard during the great escape from the massacre of 1982 and in subsequent years.
Khaled tells horrific tales of images, feelings, sounds, smells that have remained with him and with most survivors of the Hama massacre until today. But above all, these are also stories of both those who perished in the bombardments and mass executions as well of those who survived to share the pain and the long-lasting scars that can only be left by excessive brutality and deliberate savagery. The material is not for the weak heart or sensitive reader.
Today, Thursday, 2 February, 2012, and at 9:00 PM Damascus time, Orient TV is airing a 30 minute film by Journalist Emma Sulieman “Why do I paint Um-Ibrahim” “لماذا ارسم أم ابراهيم”. The promo for the film can be viewed here. Orient TV has a direct online broadcast as well.(http://orient-tv.net/orient_live.php)
Stories from Hama: Memories of Painter Khaled Al-Khani. Part 2.
After our great escape from the massacre of Hama; a human history event resembling no other massacre but itself, and after fleeing from the images, the sounds, the smell of blood, the taste of stale bread, and the voices of women being raped and men and children grappling with death having been shot, and after the destruction of our city as if an earthquake had befallen it, we reached the point of no return, and we headed to the countryside, barefoot and half naked. They displaced us from our homes, killed whomever they wanted killed, and launched us on a journey even more painful than what has preceded it.
In the village, we were received with the utmost hospitality and honor, which goes to show the fact that all of the Syrian people knew of the corrupt regime’s lies. We remained as refugees in that village, where we finished the second school semester. My father was martyred. His properties were either stolen or destroyed. We stayed there until the start of the following school year when we returned to Hama and lived with one of my maternal aunts through an act of nurturing and pain sharing. Later, one of our relatives managed to find my lost paternal aunt, about whom we had no information whatsoever, in the countryside. I remember that I did not expect to ever see her like that. She was a queen, but all had changed. I hugged her for hours, while my siblings and our mother (all of us) sobbed hysterically. My aunt later told of the arrest of my father in the shelter we passed by and that she never saw him alive after that but had learned of his death from some people. We sobbed and sobbed. Sobbing first, before even greeting each others, became the norm in Hama when people met face to face as they exchanged visits. For years, the house we stayed at was a home for many displaced because of the complete destruction of several neighborhoods such as Al-Baroudyyeh, Al-Kilanyyia, Al-Zanbaqa and Shimali, (الباروديه، الكيلانية، الزنبقة، شمالي ) and many more. There was barely a house in Hama which did not have martyrs and detainees, and this at the least.
We went back to our schools after tremendous suffering, humiliation, oppression, and hunger. I swear to you that in my grade (second grade), there were only two kids who were not orphaned. So, just imagine how much we suffered in order to overcome our internal crisis, and we still have not done that to date.
Then the regime (and it does not even deserve being called a regime), inflicted new torments. It never stopped arresting people. Many of the generation slightly older than mine were arrested and many remain disappeared until now. Their names are well-known to the people of Hama. To further torment the people of Hama, and to prove that we were humiliated, broken, and stepped all over, the ruling gang started releasing some of the prisoners who were not liquidated in Tadmor only on their self-proclaimed national holidays that had no connection whatsoever to their actual deeds; days like the “corrective movement” and the “birth of the party” and so on.
Over the years, the people of Hama became used to that. On each of these occasions, they flocked to the southern entrance of the city (i.e., Homs highway، طريق حمص) and the scene would go as follows:
Women, children and men, or for that matter, all of the people of the city , stop buses and cars coming from Homs’s direction and search while shouting, each, the name of their own disappeared with nonstop crying. The scene lasts throughout the day in a chaotic and crushed state with the search for the disappeared continuing in mind-boggling and logic defying ways. Sometimes the people may find their disappeared; may be three or four only, and the entire city would return demoralized with their voices too subdued to even express their inner pain. Those who find their prisoners are not more fortunate than those who do not, for most of the surviving prisoners are very weak and powerless, and I swear that they brake the heart more than those who perished.
We know a man who was released from prison and we went to greet him. Praise to God, he was in a good mental state because they had taken him out of Tadmor prison into Sydnaya prison for recuperation six months before his release. I swear that his skeleton was clearly visible and his color was inhumanly white because he had not seen the sun for years. He told me everything about their imprisonment in Tadmor, and one of strangest stories was about a prisoner in his cell who started displaying symptoms of ruptured appendix and suffered great pain for days. They knew that they could not ask for help from the warden who used to monitor them from a hole in the ceiling because if they asked for help and informed the warden of their friend’s pain, the jailers’ solution would have been to liquidate him with the utmost expediency. The prisoners therefore decided to operate on their friend in the dormitory in complete silence. Imagine that! the prisoner’s abdomen was cut open using a piece of tin while some prisoners held him to prevent him from moving and others closed his mouth with a piece of cloth. The surgery was carried out by a doctor who made the surgical needle from the same tin, and I am not sure what kind of threads he used to sew the wound. The operation was performed without making a single sound. This was a reality of fear and repression and a clarity of fate inside the prisons of the corrupt regime.
I will tell some harrowing images that can only reflect the logic of the barbarians who violated my city in 1982.
While inside the washing room in Omar Ibn-Alkhattab mosque, the door opened and five adolescent girls were let in, and what a scene….. The lower halves of their clothes were full of blood, and while we the children did not pay attention to this sign, which was beyond our comprehension, some of the women, seeing this, fell down in seizures. We did not understand the rising crescendo of Surat-Yassin (سورة يسين), the Takbeer (تكبير), and the increasingly louder crying, but we joined everyone crying in a way I have never encountered again in my life because nothing like this could have happened any where else, and god willing, never will such happen anywhere else again.
The adolescent girls were taken to a small back part of the washing room after the scene of their blood filled our hearts. The older women tried to help the bleeding that was staining the place (how indecent are you as you demonstrated and confirmed your savagery, O’ barbarians). Then, and in a scene that causes the soul a great disturbance and horribly breaches serenity with pain shared until today, some women began to take off their underwear and hand them to the girls. Us children were shell-shocked, as we could not understand what was happening in front of our eyes, why were women taking off their underwear to cover our violated virtues? The women, who joined forces even managed to stop the horrible bleeding. At first, some women asked for assistance from the soldiers, but the soldiers refused, laughed, and mocked us with excessive vulgarity as if they were not born to mothers but sprang out of cold stones and as if they have never known God, but only bullying coercion. The women tried to embrace the wounded girls to ease their panic, and only after long hours, our minds achieved the contentment of the restless and tired soul, mainly as one form of survival instinct. We, the children, began to playfully approach the wounded girls to alleviate their pain. I still remember their faces, they looked horrified as if they came out of a barn full of rabid wolves
The girls told the women what happened to them. They refused to respond to the wolves’ demand, and the wolves hit them with brutality far beneath human imagination. Beating them, verbally assaulting and stripping them by tearing their clothes, they violated the young girls’ hymens with most inhuman barbaric means. Sex was not their only motive, they were sick with infinite sadism that violated the girls’ souls before their bodies, these were the monstrous beasts who yoked our necks.
In the same place, one woman told about her elderly handicapped grandmother, who had sent them off in hope that they will survive this dark blood bath and stayed behind with her wheel-less walker.
They were in the Al’aseeda (العصيدة) neighborhood right after the army had bombed it with artillery and had entered it as killers immediately executing many men and horribly mutilating their bodies in the worst possible means. Never hesitant to murder even children, the soldiers arrested those left alive. I swear, I know a man who was a child then, and I saw and spoke with him s few weeks ago, and he told me of the state of the bodies of his maternal uncles, and that when they fled, they had to step over the bodies of their loved ones to get out. What a way to say good-by, and what a horrible death. He has been carrying his pain with him to the day, and he told me “I’m afraid of their might, and I can’t resist my fear. Forever they raped my peace of mind”. He naively asked me, “we will be victorious over them, won’t we?” I laughed, me who hasn’t laughed in months and confirmed our victory while hesitantly smiling. But I know that we will be celebrating our victory.
Grandmother (um Ibrahim) decided to get everyone from the neighborhood out, and herein, everyone means only children and women. She walked with them supported by her walker under snipers’ bullets and artillery shells, climbing uphill until they reached the beginning of the “Hadher, حاضر” neighborhood. Um Ibrahim became tired and she could not walk anymore so she stayed in the house of one of my paternal aunts and her husband after she sent them to their unknown destiny like a flock of swallows among beasts. Grandmother Um Ibrahim had no other choice, and she was well aware that these killers are not human and that everyone must escape the blood bath that threatened them every moment. In the wash room, when the women talked about Um Ibrahim and how she shouted at them sending them off to their escape, every one read Al-Fatiha, “الفاتحة” for her soul thinking that she was wiped by the barbarism she decided to confront. But Um Ibrahim was stronger than the canon, and as my aunt and her husband decided to escape from the ever rising death, she released them and stayed in their home decidedly defiant.
For a week, Um-Ibrahim remained in my aunt’s house with all doors wide open. The soldiers entered the house, went out, stole and demolished its contents, all the while Um-Ibrahim screamed in their faces scaring them and shaking their fake sense of bravery. She did not bow to the killers. Instead, she defended the house with her courage as a symbol of righteous defense of the entire violated city. Her steadfastness humiliated them and their leaders, and they started obeying her dictates and discovered that she was the victor with her walker. They decided to blow up the houses of the entire neighborhood intending for her to witness the level of their inhumanity. So they took her out of the house to the middle of the street, and she sat on a chair in the middle of the bloodied street for three days throughout which, Um Ibrahim, in this wilderness, never negotiated or even maneuvered. She announced her presence like a palm tree, a flagpole and a flag, never asking for help from anyone. Some soldiers, taken by her glory, started to help her in her physical needs. Um Ibrahim swore that she never feared them because they were too small for her vision to a point where they became invisible to her. She insisted that God sent her all what she needed while she stayed to tell the killers that we will return, exact justice, honor our martyrs with individual headstones refusing to leave them to a mass grave, and that “contrary to your belief, you will never be victorious”. In the end, it was by God’s mercy that some people, also on their own escape journey, found her and carried her; she who refused to be carried, to the villages with the other dispossessed.
…. to be continued