Middle East

In hiding with a Syrian activist's family

Demonstration against President Assad
Only men join the protests following attacks on women by pro-government thugs

After months of unrest, life is hard for the residents of Homs - the 'capital of the Syrian revolution' - especially for the women, who are unable to leave the house.

Four-year-old Khaled runs to the front door, head butts it and screams, "I want to go out!"

His mother grabs him before he can do himself an injury.

His baby brother wakes up and starts crying. The sound of angry, childish rage fills the small apartment.

"I am sorry," says their mother, Om Khaled, with tears running down her face. "They can't help it."

I am hiding in Homs - the so-called capital of the Syrian revolution - with the family of a political activist.

The city has been in a state of near siege, surrounded by President Assad's army for seven months now.

Revolutionary hours

I am getting a taste of what this means from a woman and a mother's point of view.

Many of Homs' shops have been closed

At least the men can do something - they can either drive tanks and fire their weapons, if they are on the one side, or prepare their anti-government slogans and march in the now daily demonstrations, if they are on the other.

Women and children are virtual prisoners.

Since pro-government thugs started kidnapping, raping and even killing women, few dare leave their homes.

The sound of gunfire over the city is constant. All the shopping, from the few stores which are open, is done by the men.

But Om Khaled's husband, Mohammed, also has a revolution to organise. He has forgotten to buy nappies for the baby for over a week now.

His wife encourages him to hold meetings of the Revolutionary Council in the flat.

That way, at least she knows where he is.

For her, it means non-stop cooking, washing up and looking after the children.

And then there are the revolutionary hours - meetings go on until four in the morning and the revolutionaries sleep until midday on sofas and on the floor.

The children have to be persuaded not to disturb them.

And now she has me sleeping on the floor as well, adding to her work and anxiety.

'Harbouring foreigners'

I try to lighten her burden by playing with the children and helping in the kitchen, a routine which is interrupted when I am accompanied down the stairs from the fourth floor apartment by Mohammed, to be taken by car to attend demonstrations and record interviews.

I am wearing a hijab and sunglasses but still I arouse suspicion.

"You've got a foreigner staying with you!" the woman on the third floor says to Om Khaled accusingly, after she has seen me on the stairs one day.

"She's a cousin of my husband from Kuwait," she says in reply, hoping this will account for my foreign-ness. If the family were caught harbouring a foreign journalist, it would end in imprisonment and torture for Mohammed.

Mohammed takes me on a tour of the city and points out the signs of six months of attack by President Assad's army - burned-out bus shelters, buildings pockmarked with shell holes, piles of uncollected rubbish in the street.

"They punish the areas where demonstrations take place," he explains, "by cutting the services. We have plenty of rats but we can be without water, electricity and communications for days."

We drive past schools which have been attacked and are closed. Some are being used as prisons for the protesters. They are covered in graffiti. One rather unnervingly says "We want Freedoom" (with a double "o").

Bearing the brunt

I try to imagine what it must be like to be a mother of older children (many families have eight or more).

How could she persuade teenage boys to stay at home? With the schools closed and no sport or entertainment possible, the daily demonstrations and the killing are now the only show in town.

As the capital of the revolution, Homs has borne the brunt of the casualties.

Of the more than 3,000 believed to have been killed over the last seven months - and many believe the figure is much higher - over 1,300 have been killed in Homs, including children.

True to the Arab tradition and even in these exceptional times, Om Khaled is a generous and kind host, lending me pyjamas, a sleeping bag and everything I left behind when I was smuggled into the city.

She refuses to accept gifts or payment for my stay but I can see the relief in her eyes when I eventually leave.

"You must come and stay with me in London when this is all over," I say.

"When it's all over," she says, reaching for her son as he makes a break for the door.

"I pray to God it will be over before Khaled is old enough to make it out on to the street. Inshallah!"

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