SINCE pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Syria last March, protesters have used a series of symbols to unite and galvanise the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad‘s government and highlight the crackdown on dissent.
At protests across the country, people’s faces are often now painted with the green, white and black flag of the former Syrian Republic, which existed before the Baath Party and the Assad family came to power.
As well as the old flag, women and children have appeared at protests both inside the country and outside embassies around the world with their faces painted with blood-red tears to symbolise people’s suffering.
The symbolic dead
The cases of particular individuals among the thousands of reported dead have also come to symbolise the uprising and encouraged widespread outrage.
In May, a number of pages were created on Facebook in memory of a 13-year-old boy, Hamza al-Khatib, who was allegedly arrested and tortured to death by security forces at the end of the previous month.
Officials said he had been shot dead at a protest, but video footage of his body seemed to show evidence of cigarette burns and other signs of torture and mutilation, including emasculation, as well as bullet wounds.
Hamza’s death became a powerful symbol of the uprising, reflecting a trend in the Middle East of holding up “martyrs” as symbols of “resistance”.
His picture was subsequently raised at many demonstrations in many towns, while the Facebook pages were invoked by world leaders to argue for further pressure to be placed on President Assad’s government.
Then in June, a man from Hama named Ibrahim Qashush wrote a protest song in which he told the president: “Hey Bashar, hey liar. Damn you and your speech, freedom is right at the door. So come on, Bashar, time to leave.”
The song became popular as the crackdown on protests in the city intensified, and at the beginning of July, Qashush was filmed performing it in front of a huge crowd of protesters, many of whom sang along.
Days later, a video began circulating online showing a body found floating in the River Orontes, which flows through Hama. Residents said it was Qashush’s, and that his throat had been cut and vocal chords ripped out.
It is impossible to verify the claims about his death, but Qashush and his song soon became a symbol of the power of the protesters’ message and the brutal actions of the government. The song was chanted at protests across the country and many people posted their own versions online.
Hama and its ancient, wooden water-wheels, or norias, which line the Orontes as it passes through the city, have become important symbols for the opposition.
On 3 February, activists uploaded images of norias painted red to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the attack by security forces on the city, which is widely known as the “Hama massacre“.
In 1982, then-President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, sent in troops to quell an uprising by the Sunni Islamist opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Between 10,000 and 25,000 people were killed and parts of the city flattened. The operation was led by Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar’s uncle.
Opposition supporters have also used the norias criticise the president publicly. Photographs have been published showing support structures painted with the old Syrian Republic’s flag, and one marked with graffiti stating: “Hafez died, and Hama didn’t. Bashar will die, and Hama won’t.”
Protesters in other cities around the country have also been reportedly shouting: “We are sorry Hama – forgive us” and carrying model norias.
Some Western media reports have been careful to point out that the 1982 uprising in Hama was led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had run a campaign against the Syrian government since the late 1970s.
In contrast, the 2011 uprising began with peaceful protests, which did not have the public support of either the Brotherhood or any other groups.
Despite this, Syria’s opposition is mindful of the country’s recent history and is using Hama as another symbol to spur on protesters.