One of two eye doctors are determining the future of Syria. The first is alive and kicking: son of a brutal military dictator; heir to a corrupt family junta that has ruled the country for 41 years. The second is a long-dead private citizen, buried at the bottom of his family’s modest garden.
Dr Hikmat Khani was head of Hama’s national hospital when, in 1982, his city was besieged and bombarded on the orders of Bashar Assad’s father Hafiz and his uncle Rif’at. To rout 1,500 armed Islamists there, the Assads killed 25,000 innocent civilians. Tens of thousands were rounded up and tortured. Young girls were gang-raped and women had their hands chopped off so their bracelets could be stolen more quickly after their men had been murdered.
The maimed lay on the streets of the half-flattened city, crying out in agony, as many eyewitnesses have recounted since. Dr Khani sought to help what wounded he could treat. For this, he was taken to the state porcelain factory, which had been turned into a detention centre. There, this renowned specialist was made an example of in front of the other prisoners. He had his right eye gouged out, then was left to bleed for three hours before being beaten to death. His broken mess of a body was sent to his pregnant wife, with his identity card nailed to his naked chest.
Today Hama is being bombarded in much the same way by Bashar and Maher, with weaponry paid for by an impoverished Syrian people through the stiff “defence tax”. It is thus that Deraa, Deir Ezzor, Qamishli, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Maarat al-Numan, Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour, Muadhamiya, Zabadani, Midan and all our other towns and cities and quarters have been made to subsidise the murder of their own sons and daughters.
Though all the undemocratic regimes of the Arab world are unremittingly cruel, Assad’s must stand out as the most inventively macabre. Its brutish, uncouth, illiterate and famously greedy Shabbiha death squads are being bussed around the country, with orders to rape, loot, burn, and kill. It is they who pull out the fingernails of young boys, they who torture them to death, castrate their bodies, only to force their grief-crazed parents to recant their accusations on the state’s propaganda television.
It was them who killed Ibrahim Qattush – the amateur musician who became an overnight sensation and the revolution’s youthful voice, when he composed some of its rousing chants and ditties. Qattush’s throat was cut out, as it was where the regime visualised his songs came from. Such literalism in its crimes is very much part of the way this crudest of power structures seeks to present itself.
In the past five months of Syria’s agony some international pundits have made it their business to cheer for Bashar, swallowing his black propaganda line that “aprés moi, le deluge” of the Salafi bogeymen. But facts on the ground are more eloquent: every single minority and ethnicity across Syria has risen in revolt, repelled by the war crimes it has been witness to: Alawites in Jableh and Tartus; Ismailis in Salamieh; Armenians in Aleppo and Damascus; Assyrians in Qamishli; Kurds in the whole of the al-Jazira; Sunnis and Christians of all denominations in Hama and Homs and Latakia; Bedouins in Deir Ezzor and Daraa; Druze in Swaida.
What will the Assads and their extended family be remembered for? Their prisons, mass graves, scorched earth policy; their denaturing of Syrian society into a place of suspicion and fear; and their ugly creation of a North Korea without the bomb? Their illegal enrichment, corruption, arrogance and vindictiveness?
Syrians deserve better and will win their freedom the difficult way, as other peoples have. Perhaps, judging by the mysterious reported death of Ali Habib, the recently sacked minister of defence, widely believed to have clashed with Bashar’s lunatic policy; the increasing detections from the army; the no-show of 10,000 reservists at least; and the falling away of all the regime’s friends, bar Hugo Chávez and Hassan Nasrallah, the end is nearer than we dare to hope.
Of the two eye doctors that Syria has produced, I believe it is the late Dr Khani – and millions like him – who will make our country the place we want it to be.
By Rana Kabbani, a Syrian writer and broadcaster who lives in London.