There was something in the air, even back then in late 1977, that we should have realized might lead to this. On a once-in-a-lifetime, whirlwind backpacking adventure across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, my wife and I were riding a bus north from Damascus, Syria, to Aleppo, a distance of about 220 miles as the crow flies.
Or maybe further than that as the creaky Syrian public bus navigates it.
Crammed in a tight space with elderly men, scarved women, cheery children, and a smattering of goats, sheep and other livestock, we barreled our way through Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman empires. It was breathtaking, but so was the driving. Our eyes widened as we watched the bus driver constantly blowing the horn with one hand and waving his other out the window, shouting "Yella!" to the drivers of the vehicles he was trying to pass.
I was just succumbing to food poisoning, so my head was on fire. My fever made the entire trip quasi-psychedelic, and I kept expecting to see the Beatles seated next to me, singing "Magical Mystery Tour."
But there was little magic to this trip. What now seems all too eerily familiar was the obtrusive boarding of the bus on two occasions by heavily armed Syrian soldiers. Even in my sickly state, I still smiled and tried using my pedestrian Arabic as I handed them my passport. They did not smile back. They glared at me. They ripped our passports from us, hollered things in Arabic and glowered at the Syrian passengers. They kept us there for minutes that seemed like hours and eventually removed a young couple from the bus.
What would happen to them?
I think we now probably know what happened to them and thousands of others in the past 30-plus years. We had just passed through the city of Homs and were closing in on Hama. Both cities would eventually become ground zero in Syrian resistance and violence over the next three decades, first during the Hama revolt of 1982 and later the Homs' massacre of this past March.
Both only to be outdone by the horror of Houla.
Even if we had known it at the time, what could we have done to stop it? Back then it was the father, Hafez al-Assad, who sent his brother Rifaat's special forces into Hama a few years after our bus ride with orders to completely destroy what he called the "Islamic militancy" aka the Muslim brotherhood, that had taken root in Hama.
Attacked by more than 12,000 Syrian troops, the fighting in Hama lasted for three weeks. The Syrian military onslaught began with bombing the old city center from the air to facilitate the entry of infantry and tanks through the narrow streets; tanks demolished buildings during the first days of fighting. Large parts of the old city were destroyed. There were reports of the use of hydrogen cyanide by the government forces.
Like today, torture and mass executions of suspected rebel sympathizers ensued. Rifaat al-Assad, suspecting that rebels were still hiding in tunnels under the old city, had diesel fuel pumped into them and set ablaze and stationed T-72 tanks at the tunnel entrances to shell people trying to escape from the tunnels.
While initial reports placed the death tool from Hama fighting at 1,000, it's now believed that as many as 40,000 Syrians were killed during the three-week siege in 1982.
Inside Syria itself, the Hama Massacre was never referred to as such. More antiseptic and politically accepted terms like the "events" or "incident" at Hama were more widely used.
And now we have the violence and killing of the past two years and the unspeakable acts at Houla. Where and when will it end? And how do we stop it?
Our bus eventually stopped in Aleppo in November of 1977. It took two days for my fever to break, but it did, and we eventually ran out of money and returned home to America.
But I'm still haunted by the faces of the Syrians I saw on the bus that day, those whose sons and daughters and grandchildren may now be dying in places like Houla.
And I'm reminded, too, of the words of the old Arabic proverb: "I came to the place of my birth and cried, The friends of my youth, where are they? An echo answered, Where are they?"
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