Najah Kowaf was only a child when Hama first witnessed violence and clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling regime in 1964. The city was bombarded by artillery fire and the army rolled in on their tanks and imposed a curfew on everyone.
“I still remember the destruction left behind by those clashes,” says Najah. “The scenes are imprinted in my memory until today.”
A series of assassinations began in 1979, targeting important figures in the security forces and commanders in the Baath Party. There were security disturbances and demonstrations that later turned into armed clashes.
Those incidents had great impact on the daily lives of people in Hama, and it pushed the families and residents to stop their gatherings and try to resume a sense of normality. Life in the city began to stagnate, and hundreds of people left for countries in the Gulf to try and improve their deteriorating economic conditions.
Things continued like this until clashes ignited anew in 1982.
Najah had finished his studies at an electrician’s institute in Damascus, graduating in 1979, completed his obligatory military service and started work in industrial electrical circuitry and engine repair.
Despite his poor financial situation at the time, he got married. All his attempts to leave the country had been unsuccessful. Instead, he threw himself into his work, hoping that he might somehow be able to improve his situation.
“So many people in Hama were subjected to great injustice because of what happened in 1982,” says Najah, “which as a whole was a settling of accounts, whereby the true victims were the families who fled their homes empty-handed, seeking shelter in other Provinces, such as Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. It was easier for those who lived on the outskirts than for those who lived in the city to leave, and they were gone for about a month, or forty days, until the security situation calmed down.”
Najah remembers his own family’s displacement from the Sabuniya area on the outskirts of Hama. They piled into his brother’s bus along with a number of other families and headed for Homs, after which some people continued on to Damascus and others to Latakiya.
Those who had been displaced were reduced to misery and poverty, forced to spend everything they had managed to save over many years. Some families in Damascus offered assistance until the displaced could return to their city and take up their work there anew.
The turbulent situation and the instability in Hama led people to become very cautious with their money and unwilling to venture into any new projects. Jobs became even scarcer and Najeh was forced to work as a painter of houses to try and provide for his family and children and pay off all their expenses.
“The events in Hama really impacted the economic situation, and everyone’s financial situations worsened,” says Najeh. “They also impacted people psychologically, keeping them in a state of shock that took a long time to wake up from, especially that so many people had been killed or disappeared, including my own brother.
“The people were forced to just surrender themselves to this new reality,” continues Najeh, “without receiving the bodies of their dead or being able to even have funerals for them. There was no more joy to be found in the city for a long time, and when the situation became more stable, they issued lists with the names of the dead, and asked their next of kin to come pick up their death certificates so that their deaths could be registered at the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Death. This is what my father had to do, though he hesitated for a long time first, fearing that it might expose him or one of us children to reprisals later on.”
Najeh unsuccessfully tried to get a work permit for Saudi Arabia, and so he worked in Lebanon for a short while before returning to Syria, as it was too difficult to be away from his family.
“I wish that this next generation has better chances than we did,” says Najeh, “because our generation has lived most of its life caught in conflict and tensions. I see them as struggles against the ruling authorities, that have never sought to keep the country together, because they’ve brought us nothing but ruin and destruction.”