Homs: War changes the soul of Syrian city

Despite small pockets of normality, the battle for Homs in Syria goes on

It has been called the "capital of the revolution". Homs has been all too much at the centre of events in Syria over the past two years.

The country's third largest city has seen some of the worst of the fighting, a terribly large share of the casualties, and a shocking amount of destruction.

Nearly a year on from a blistering government assault on opposition enclaves, much of the city is in government hands. But, again, there were reports on Friday of another offensive on an opposition stronghold in a largely Sunni neighbourhood. Homs is still torn.

The fabric of a city once part of Syria's much vaunted religious and ethnic mosaic is sadly frayed. Now it is stitched together by a network of army checkpoints across most of the city.

But there is still a desolate no-man's land in the centre which has hardly changed since we visited last year, except for a clock tower with even less of a face.

The pavement is still a carpet of glass from shattered windows in every building. And the lanes of gutted houses lead to the historic Old City, the cherished heart of Homs which barely beats now.

Families in desperate need are trapped in the ruins still in opposition hands.

But in other corners of Homs staunchly loyal to the government traffic flows. You can sit in a cafe and order slices of piping hot pizza. From a Margherita to one with Mexican toppings, take your pick.

Hopscotch and gunfire

In the district of Baba Amr, which bore the brunt of much of the military onslaught in February and March 2011, a shiny new banner of President Bashar al-Assad is plastered on a building pockmarked by shrapnel and bullet holes.

Some families are slowly returning home, but "home" must seem like a different country. The area still lies in ruins.

But children do not even miss a step as they play hopscotch to a soundtrack of not so distant gunfire. This is their life now.

There is a constant sound of shelling and small-arms fire in some parts of the city, and clashes in others. The war is not over.

On the streets of one district, the "Lionesses for National Defence" are in action. Women are now manning the army checkpoints.

They are on the urban front line for President Assad - whose surname means Lion in Arabic - putting a new face on an old war changing the very soul of the city.

Lyse Doucet Article written by Lyse Doucet Lyse Doucet Chief international correspondent

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