Homs is calm for now –but the fear remains

The city of Homs, once the heart of the Syrian uprising, is very much back under government control. The only substantial area still held by the rebels is the Old City, under siege by the Syrian army, which exchanges sniper fire and mortar bombs with the rest of the city.

Homs, the third-largest city in Syria with a pre-civil war population of 2.3 million, was the scene of heavy fighting and a ferocious bombardment earlier in the year. Some districts still look devastated, though the rubble has been cleared away. But there was no sound of shooting yesterday and most of the city shops and markets were open and traffic was flowing freely. There are many checkpoints, but the soldiers manning them looked relaxed.

But not everything is normal. In a district named after the Armenians who first settled it, several missiles – allegedly fired from the Old City – struck two houses on Sunday, collapsing a four-storey apartment building in which at least five people were killed and 37 injured. Ebtessam, a middle-aged woman who had been taking her daughter to school, said there were "no military buildings nearby". This appeared to be the case. She complained that rebel snipers "made some streets unsafe, so I have to take a long way round to reach my house". Maher, a 12-year-old boy in blue school uniform, said his own district of al-Mohajren was also unsafe because of snipers.

The worst fighting earlier in the year was in the Bab al-Amar district, which was pounded by artillery. The main road still looks devastated, buildings burned out and walls toppled or scarred by shrapnel. It is a measure of the strength of government control that officials feel safe to go there with foreign visitors. There were almost no cars and few pedestrians though there are more people living in the side streets which are not badly damaged.

Several people refused to talk or spoke guardedly, but one elderly man, who said his name was Mohammed al-Rahmoun, came up to me and said he was trying to find his 30-year-old son Osama, who was arrested five months ago and had not been heard of since. "I ask in many places but nobody knows what happened to him," said his father, who added that his other son Anas had been killed by a bullet during the fighting earlier in the year.

Life in most of Homs looks normal. There are queues outside shops where people with ration chits get bottled gas for domestic cooking. Petrol is also rationed. Most schools and colleges were open. On the road from Damascus there were a number of minibuses and small trucks with large bundles of household possessions on the roof bringing back people who had fled to the capital earlier in the year. One driver said "Homs is now safer than Damascus". Other displaced people in Homs are crowded into public buildings, aid officials said.

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