Nearly four years after the start of the war in Syria, visitors to Homs — a city considered by the opposition as the capital of the revolution — can easily feel the magnitude of the tragedy caused by the battles. Tragedy has turned the capital of humor into a wounded city. The stench of death still wafts from the streets of Homs. Half of the city is uninhabited and the other half is inhabited by a wounded population. Nevertheless, the city is trying to rise up from the ashes and return to life.
Homs receives visitors coming from Damascus through a large military checkpoint, where thorough searches are carried out for wanted people or explosive materials. As you pass Baath University, one can still feel it bustle with life, as more than 120,000 students are enrolled.
The citizens of the city recall the days when the Bab Amr neighborhood posed a real threat to Baath University, which was hit by shells that killed 22 students and injured about 34, according to university officials. However, the university regained its role as an important learning center. University campuses accommodate more than 13,000 students from other provinces, and thousands of students are distributed in the city neighborhoods that are relatively safe now.
Neighborhoods that were pro-government at the beginning of the events (Akrama, al-Nezha, Wadi al-Zahab, Karm al-Lawz, al-Zahra and al-Arman) are crowded and remain relatively safe. On the other hand, the neighborhoods controlled by opposition militants (Bab Amr, al-Nazihin, Ashira, Karm al-Zaitoun, the old quarter of Homs, Deir Balbeh and al-Bayada) are almost uninhabited after most residents were forced to leave during the armed clashes between the Syrian army and the combat factions. Some families returned after the army took control, while many are still distributed between the pro-government neighborhoods, the refugee camps in Lebanon and the flared-up countryside of Homs.
Most of the people you meet in Homs relay the stories of a massacre they witnessed or a bombing that took the lives of their loved ones, or a story of a martyr who was fighting to defend the city.
Numerous stories describing the start of the events in the city all lead to the same conclusion: “Some parties were working to stir sedition, kidnapping operations were carried out between sects and neighborhoods, pedestrians were fired at and sporadic demonstrations were staged.” The citizens of the city today blame external parties and local conspirators.
Kidnappings and killings
In the beginning, kidnappings and killings were the most common security breaches in Homs. Hossam Mia, a former teacher at the Qazhal School in Homs, and a survivor of a November 2011 civilian massacre, said, “At the end of my work shift I was heading back home in a taxi cab. Given the traffic, the cab was packed with 15 passengers. It was a day I will never forget.”
Mia stops for a while and tells As-Safir, “After reaching the traffic light at Khalid Mosque, and instead of going straight ahead, the taxi driver veered to the right under the pretext of shootings in al-Khalidiyah neighborhood. He headed toward Wadi al-Sayeh, where militants had installed a checkpoint near al-Umawiah School, and we found out that he was dealing with these militants.”
He added, “They asked for our personal cards and some gave their cards. Two young men from al-Khalidiyah and four girls were released and the nine of us who refused to show their cards were held, including a woman and her husband.”
Mia continued, “The woman was killed immediately. Her husband sat crying over her head before they killed him, too. Then they made us stand near the school wall and opened fire at us.”
Hossam was hit by gunfire in his leg and the militants thought him dead. The militants then evacuated the scene, leaving behind dead bodies. Some citizens tried to save those who remained alive.
“A 40-year-old woman from the neighborhood saved my life. She stopped her car and took me to the hospital, while the rest were all dead,” said Mia.
Homs residents tell many similar stories of events that took place at the beginning of the conflict, most notably the attack on the Officers Club that led to the killing of Adel Fendi and the injury of others. The incident was a turning point in the city, followed by successive assassinations, kidnappings and mutilation of dead bodies. Sectarian congestion followed, making the city a breeding ground for a long war.
The pace of the insurgency and clashes quickened, and Homs was fragmented. Militants controlled several neighborhoods, and then besieged neighborhoods loyal to the regime, notably al-Zahra neighborhood, whose inhabitants were forced to move to the countryside of Homs (via the villages of Zaidal and Fayrouza) to reach other neighborhoods or cities.
Taking back neighborhoods
An official of the National Defense Forces in Homs told As-Safir, “The repeated kidnappings and attacks prompted the inhabitants of the neighborhoods supporting the regime to form popular committees to defend themselves.” He added, “With time, the work of these committees was organized within an institution of a clear structure to ensure security. National defense was a necessity in light of the circumstances witnessed by Homs. This required the formation of a substitute institution for the army, which contributed in restoring safety to the city.”
The first military operations in Homs took place in “the revolution stronghold,” namely the famous Bab Amr neighborhood, which was besieged for a long period before the Syrian army and its supporting factions decided to start a military campaign to regain control of the neighborhoods of the city, located in the middle of Syria.
[The Syrian army] seized control of the neighborhood, which, according to opposition militants, was impossible to be completely seized. The military operations expanded, and the army subsequently managed to control all neighborhoods of the city with the exception of the old city, which insurgents left following a long siege and a UN-brokered deal. Al-Waer neighborhood is still controlled by armed factions and is under siege by the Syrian army and the National Defense Forces.
The Syrian army regaining control over Homs’ neighborhoods shocked opposition circles, as they considered Homs “the capital of the revolution.” Homs' location in Syria is also strategically important, as it is connected to Hama, Idlib, Turkey to the north, Lebanon to the south, Damascus to the southeast and the Iraqi border to the east. Control of Homs means control of most of Syria's supply routes.
“The gunmen wanted to turn Homs into Syria’s Benghazi, but the military action completely foiled their plot, and Homs turned into a springboard for the Syrian army’s operations rather than a stronghold for the armed factions,” a military source said.
The Syrian army’s operations, which began in early 2012, were not limited to the city border, and they spread to Qusair (one of the most important arms smuggling passages across Lebanon). The army took over Qusair in June 2013 before it seized the Zara area and Krak des Chevaliers in March, in cooperation with Hezbollah.
Though the Syrian army controls the Lebanese border and the entire city of Homs and its environs — except for al-Waer district, home to about 300,000 people, according to opposition estimates — the northern countryside remains troublesome. This region is open to Turkey and currently serves as the springboard to launch missiles at the city, from Rastan and Talbiseh up to Dar al-Kabira.
“Homs cannot be fully secured until these areas are controlled,” said the military source, who added, as he glimpsed at a map in front of him, that “these areas are open to the countryside of Idlib and Turkey, and controlling them is very difficult. Therefore, supply routes must be initially blocked, and this does not seem easy at the moment.”
Despite the daily shells that befall Homs, the residents of the “wounded city” — as the residents call their city — have adapted to these conditions.
Muhammad Ali Daher, a local journalist, said, “Every home has a martyred, wounded or missing member. … War has somehow wiped out civilian life, but people have become accustomed to this life.”
No official or accurate statistics exist for Homs' dead or wounded. The issue of missing people — those kidnapped by the armed factions — continues to haunt citizens. According to the latest official statistics, about 2,600 people are missing.
In the city's Armenian neighborhood, activists have hung on the walls of the water plant hundreds of photos of the city's martyrs, including women and children. “This place has somehow turned into a pilgrimage place for the people of the city,” a man in his 50s said as he gazed at the pictures. He pointed to a picture and said, "This is my son." After a long silence, he said, "He is a martyr."
In addition to the kidnappings and killings, car bombs have penetrated Homs' safe neighborhoods. Twenty-three suicide bombings have occurred in neighborhoods, including three double bombings. However, the heaviest explosion took place at the Akrama School, killing more than 40 children.
City markets along the Zahra neighborhood's Hadara Street are still crowded, while cafes are mostly filled with soldiers.
“Military action stole the townspeople,” said Imad, an English student at Baath University. “They wanted to push us to leave our city, but the magic turned against the magician. The city is safe now, and militants are besieged in al-Waer neighborhood,” Imad, 23, said as he puffed a hookah. “At first, they were actors, but all the acts and bombings they are carrying out in the city now are a reaction to the Syrian army’s movements. This is reassuring.”
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