1982

There is a woman who lives alone in Hama, Syria. She has been in mourning for thirty-two years, tormented by memories of her survival. One night in February 1982, when she was a young woman in her twenties, military forces raided the basement where she and the women in her family had been hiding, huddled with their neighbours. They had thought they were safe, sheltered from the mass murders and arrests that had become everyday occurrences in the historically quiet and conservative city.

On 2 February, President Hafez al-Assad’s forces sealed Hama with tanks, effectively placing Syria’s fourth largest city — with a population of 800,000 people at the time — under siege. With no communications to the outside world, Hama’s men, women, and children lived alone in their terror— their cries unheard, their images unseen. By the end of that month, an estimated 20,000–40,000 people were killed. The exact number of dead will never be known. The mass graves will never be discovered. Countless others disappeared into Assad’s prisons to be tortured for years, even decades. These men were left to rot to death and forgotten forever.

That night in the basement, screams mixed with the explosions from the soldiers’ machine guns. The rain of bullets turned the screams into desperate final gasps. And then, silence. Within minutes, the young lady’s family and friends had become a pile of corpses burying her underneath. It was her fate and her luck to have been covered by their bodies. She stifled her sobs, fought against the urge to vomit, and forced her own body to be as still as the heavy corpses.

While she pretended to be dead, she watched between the gaps of clothes and limbs as soldiers hacked off the women’s’ hands to slip the valuable stacks of gold bangles off their wrists. She watched while the soldiers made crude jokes, mocking the dead. She waited until the room was as silent as the death that surrounded her. Only then did she allow herself to scream, but no sound came out of her mouth. She untangled herself from the pile of mutilated bodies that used to be her family and friends. She waited, terrified, for four days, before she walked out of the basement, covered in their dried blood. She was alive and alone.

Over the years, every now and then, she would decide to write her family’s story and preserve the details so she would not forget. So when the time came to tell the story of Hama, everyone would know the truth of what happened to her family. She would sit and write. Every time she finished a draft, terror would consume her once more because she feared the incriminating pages. Everyone around her could potentially be a government informant. In Syria, as they say, even the walls have ears.

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