An explosion in global coverage and media activism in Syria stands in sharp contrast with a news blackout on Hama 31 years ago, when thousands of people were killed in a month-long army assault on the city.
“The difference between 1982 and now is that today we have a voice — and the world is listening,” said Abu Tareq, a 43-year-old native of the central city who fled Syria for northern Lebanon with his family a year ago.
In February 1982, Syria’s then president Hafez al-Assad launched a ruthless military campaign to crush an Islamist-led uprising in Hama.
Rights groups say between 10,000 and 40,000 people perished in the single worst atrocity in Syria’s modern history.
But only two international reporters were able to reach the scene at the time, one of them after the campaign ended.
“For many years, residents of Hama feared talking about the killings for fear of imprisonment,” Abu Tareq told AFP.
But the outbreak of a 22-month revolt that quickly morphed into an insurgency has led thousands of Syrians to break decades-old walls of silence.
On Saturday, activists in Hama, many of them born after 1982, launched a commemoration campaign in defiance of a security lockdown on the city, using graffiti and social media.
Hama-based activists filled their Facebook pages with video interviews with survivors of 1982, while others posted pictures of the city’s emblematic water wheels with slogans that read: “We shall not forget.”
In the current revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, despite anti-regime sentiment running at fever pitch, Hama has been firmly under army control since a crackdown in summer 2011.
“Despite the regime’s attempts to silence us, there are some 300 amateur journalists and photographers working in the city of Hama today,” 24-year-old activist and amateur photographer Abu al-Ezz told AFP via the Internet.
“Together we provide coverage of events every minute of the day,” he added.
Hama-based youth also use Facebook and other social media tools to defy restrictions on activism in their city and to build ties with activists elsewhere.
“We have coordinated with activists in Egypt and Italy via the Internet to help organise demonstrations in their cities this weekend, to mark the 1982 Hama massacre,” said Abu al-Ezz.
“While our parents were terrified of talking out loud, we young people have broken all our fears despite the difficulties,” he added.
To a medic in Hama who also spoke via the Internet on condition of anonymity, the city’s youth have turned to new technologies to retake possession of the country’s history.
“The young media activists have not only broken the silence in Syria on current events, they are also forging new ways to talk about the past,” the dissident doctor said.
“They are leading the way for the Syrian people to move on from the official versions of history. Their role is far bigger than just keeping the world media informed,” he added.
But citizen journalist Musab said the media spotlight on Syria has not helped end the country’s war, which has cost more than 60,000 lives in nearly two years, according to the United Nations.
“The regime is still trying its best to keep its media blackout going, though scores of journalists have slipped into Syria in recent months,” Musab told AFP from Hama.
“My concern is that despite the spotlight, the world has yet to take a stand on Syria. Media has created solidarity between Syrians and the world, whereas in 1982 silence ruled.
“But solidarity does not replace real action, which is what is needed to stop the slaughter.”