In the middle of Homs, there is a large block of ruined houses facing a small hill with a fortress. The devastation reflects the fierceness of the battles that rocked the city and left buildings completely destroyed and walls bullet riddled.
Before parking his car on the roadside, the taxi driver said, “Upon seeing the destruction, you would think that the old city was completely destroyed. This is not true, though. It was a demarcation line between the Syrian army, the National Defense Forces and the security forces, on the one hand, and the militants who hid in neighborhoods, on the other hand. This is why you see massive destruction here [Bab Houd, Bab Tadmor, the main al-Hameediye Street, al-Qousour, al-Qarabees and Jouret al-Shiyah].”
“Let us continue the journey on foot. The roads are bumpy and have not been fixed yet,” he said.
The immense devastation is apparent from the road stretching from Bab Houd to Bab al-Turkman. The roads are perforated and the shops have no doors. From there, you can make your way through narrow streets, while a security car carrying a bomb detector crosses the neighboring street. The cab driver said, “The security men are still roaming the city in search of explosives or stored weapons,” adding, “One is afraid of stepping on a mine planted between the shops in al-Neswan market.”
People walking through the old streets of Homs are well aware of the loss and defeat that the militants faced when they handed over the city. The fortresses and barricades give the impression that taking over the region at the military level meant mass destruction, some neighborhoods with surviving historic buildings while others have been scarred by violence, in addition to grave human losses. It is noteworthy that the neighborhoods are close, and numerous small alleys branch off from them, in addition to dozens of tunnels that militants drilled for reinforcement. Maintenance workshops are also spread across Homs’ center, until recently the city’s governmental and commercial hub.
The city is home to a large governmental complex that contains artistic and service directorates (the syndicate of engineers, the Ministry of Finance and the gas company … ). However, the work of these services was suspended after militants tightened their noose on the city and before the Syrian army positioned itself there after the two-year blockade was lifted. The militants were locked inside the city and isolated from the outside world. When their supplies and ammunition were cut off, they had to hand over the region in two stages. During the first stage, around 2,500 people, mostly civilians, left the city. During the second stage, which involved the handover last May, 1,950 militants left the city and were transported through UN mediation to the wider al-Dar region in Homs countryside.
In the Khaled Bin al-Walid Mosque, several engineers from the military facilities’ department are working on rehabilitating what the battles destroyed. One of the engineers said, “The mosque’s outer wall was damaged to a large extent, but it will be restored.”
The government attributes great importance to the mosque, which gives its name to a part of the city, al-Walid city. Al-Umawiya School is located near the mosque. The school was until recently used as a detention center for kidnapped civilians and soldiers. A local source stated, “Nobody knows the fate of the missing people yet, and we have not found any trace of them. Some stories report that the militants killed them before handing over the city.”
In the middle of old Homs, which is rich in archeological sites and 12 churches, the damage does not seem extensive. Some houses were burned, while others were slightly damaged. Churches, however, suffered the most. An inhabitant of Hay Bostan al-Dewan said, “Umm al-Zunnar Church was damaged, and so was St. George Church. They are currently undergoing maintenance and restoration, but it will be hard to bring some of them back to the way they were.”
Abu Joseph, who is almost 60 years old, has seen bitter days in the neighborhood. He refused to leave his house, despite the blockade and war. He is among the few people who witnessed all the events in the old city.
“There were difficult times. Militants used to barge in whenever they smelled food and take everything,” he said.
Abu Joseph refused to reveal his full name for fear of them “coming back,” and he refused to say any more about the harsh times he experienced with his elderly sister.
Certain shops were open in the neighborhood, which means that residents have started to return. “Around a hundred families have returned so far,” said a resident of the Bostan neighborhood, adding, “The residents are still afraid. We are trying to get them to return as much as possible because life cannot be the same again without them.”
A pharmacy and a library opened in the neighborhood, and an investor is currently rebuilding his fancy restaurant, which had been destroyed.
The restaurant’s owner said, “Despite the major losses I have suffered, and the money that I will lose when I reopen, I hope this step will be an additional factor encouraging people to return.”
The Syrian government provides neighborhoods retaken by the army a great deal of support. They have fuel oil while other neighborhoods in the city suffer from a lack of fuel. “The government wants to ensure the people that it supports reviving the neighborhoods of this area. This is why they are offering so much,” said a government source.
The famous Baba Amro neighborhood is located southwest of the Old City, which was the militants’ previous stronghold and was under siege for a long time before the Syrian army and its supporting factions decided to launch a military campaign and take control of the neighborhood at the beginning of March 2012. Life in Baba Amro seems to have returned to normal; only the rubble indicates that violent battles had occurred there in the past, in addition to the sad memories in the residents’ homes.
Umm Abdul Rahman was forced to leave the neighborhood twice with her family before she returned for good. The first time was when the militants had control over the neighborhood, and the second time was after they had left and managed to return and regain control of it in March 2013, before the Syrian army finally took complete control and secured the neighborhood after a month of continuous battles.
“The minute they returned to the neighborhood, the militants beheaded Khaled and Seyed al-Ayed on charges of conspiring with the government. They also killed Fatima al-Askar and the trainer at the al-Wathba sports club, Raed Kadour. They murdered more than 200 people as an act of revenge, but some of us were able to flee toward the army’s military checkpoints on the neighborhood’s borders,” said Umm Abdul Rahman.
“The situation is safe now. Many were still afraid to return at first but with time, people believed that security had been restored and began gradually coming back,” she added, remembering the tough moments.
Umm Abdul Rahman told As-Safir that services are now available. “We got fuel for heating and gas is distributed on a weekly basis,” she said. She explained how things have changed since the bloody battles in the neighborhood and the current situation, “There are still empty houses whose residents are still afraid and refusing to return,” she noted.
There are still many empty neighborhoods in Homs waiting for the residents to forget about their pain and return to life in their homes, such as al-Khalidiyah, al-Hamidiyya, Wadi al-Sayeh, al-Ashireh, al-Naziheen, Karm al-Zaytoun, Baba Amro and Joura al-Arayin, whose residents are gradually starting to return. The deep wound at the heart of Syria’s joyful city, however, will take years and years to heal. Half of the city remains alive while the other struggles through pain and sad memories of a war that chose to kill the residents of its neighborhoods.
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