Homs: A scarred and divided city
- 9 May 2012
- From the section Middle East
Travel through parts of Homs and you move through a virtual ghost town.
Sprawling neighbourhoods stand deserted, desolate, destroyed in a haunting monument to months of brutal conflict.
On some streets, you walk on a carpet of glass. Every window in every building is shattered.
Gunfire rings out night and day, with occasional bursts of shelling. There is no ceasefire here and there will not be for some time.
Homs, a lively Syrian city once regarded as a place of peaceful co-existence, has borne the brunt of violence in Syria's 14-month long uprising.
The neighbourhood of Baba Amr was its biggest target in a city activists now call the "capital of the revolution".
Not a single building seems to have escaped the government's ferocious assault. Structures still standing are peppered with shrapnel, blackened by fire, fingers of concrete.
Indiscriminate bombing ripped away entire floors of large residential blocks.
"No government likes to shell its own people," says Homs Governor Ghassan Abdulal. "We had no choice. The armed groups were firing from civilian areas."
Only a few families have returned to those places in Baba Amr which still afford some shelter.
We came across a few young men sitting on a bench on a road littered with the debris of war. As we talked, more children, and family members, spilled from the doors nearby.
"We thank the Syrian army for protecting us," the elderly head of the family said, waving his hands towards the broad avenue where a few Syrian soldiers wandered.
But a few streets away, a woman spoke in whispers, saying her husband and sons were taken away last month and no news of them had returned. Her fear was palpable.
Homs is a divided city, and dangerously so.
In a central neighbourhood under government control some coffee shops were open, fruit and vegetable vendors sold their wares from wooden carts, and children played in the streets. Syrian soldiers manned makeshift checkpoints.
Two university students approached, pointing to rooftops where they said snipers were positioned.
A short distance away, wide streets strewn with rocks and glass were ominously quiet. There were no other cars on the road. Gunfire suddenly rang out and we saw two armed men in civilian clothes kicking open a metal door.
A Western source estimated between 15% and 20% of Homs was under opposition control, with a similar area still contested.
We travelled to Homs, Syria's third largest city, with a team of UN monitors bringing in logistical support and two new military observers along with a few civilian monitors.
In a strange twist of fate, the new UN soldiers came from Yemen, another Arab state grappling with its own violent confrontation.
In all, eight military observers and three civilians make up the UN team in one of Syria's most volatile cities.
Across Syria, the contingent includes 70 members, including 40 military, and is expected to reach its target of 300 by the end of this month.
Unarmed, they travel across Homs in white armoured UN vehicles. In government areas, a Syrian police and army escort moves with them on patrol, until checkpoints demarcating areas held by the opposition.
From there, the UN moves on its own, helped by its own contacts.
As we moved into an opposition stronghold, through neighbourhoods almost obliterated by months of intense battles, the UN convoy proceeded more slowly. On street after street, not a single car or person passed us.
But deep inside the neighbourhood of al-Hamidiya, there is more traffic including small vans bursting with household goods and families in search of new dwellings.
Sandbags and song
A former public building, painted with the green, white and black tricolour of Syria's opposition, is now flanked by a small sandbagged barrier. We are told the compound is used by commanders of the Free Syria Army.
A group of men, pistols slung over their shoulders, sat drinking tea on the pavement.
"State TV showed my picture and called me a terrorist and said I was dead," declared one black T-shirted man with a bandana wrapped around his forehead.
"These are all the weapons we have," he says, pointing to a pistol in a leather holster.
Asked about reports that the opposition is also violating a shaky UN truce, another man interjects: "They pushed us to this violence. We are defending ourselves."
As we prepare to leave, a young man limps toward us in a red and grey tracksuit spotted with blood.
Abdul Basit Alsarout, a popular singer also known for his football prowess, was hailed by activists for his haunting Song for Peace.
Today, as gunfire rang out in the distance, and a gaggle of young men and boys stood solemnly by, he sang a mournful Song for the Martyrs. "We are all your sons," he reassured grieving mothers.
The UN monitors then arrived, moving us along, warning us the city was dangerous.