A return to Homs: ‘The atmosphere here is poisoned by fear of a kind I have only ever seen once before’

Some 400,000 have fled the centre, held by rebels, and are scattered across the city

Khalid is too frightened of travelling the 100 miles from Homs to Damascus to ask officials if they know what happened to his three sons, who disappeared 16 months ago as government troops over-ran the rebel stronghold of Baba Amr. He has not heard anything from them since and does not know if they are alive or dead, though he has repeatedly asked the authorities in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, about them.

Khalid, a thick-set man of 60 with grizzled white hair – who used to be a construction worker until he injured his back – says he dare not make the journey to Damascus because “as soon as the soldiers at the checkpoints on the road see I come from a place like Baba Amr, with a reputation for supporting the rebels, they are likely to arrest me”. He explains that he cannot risk being detained because he has a wife and four daughters who rely on him. He is the last man left in his family since his sons went missing.

Syria is full of parents trying to keep their children alive or simply seeking to find out if they are already dead. It is as if both sides in the civil war are in a competition to see who can commit the worst atrocities. A few days before I spoke to Khalid I saw a picture on the internet of a fresh-faced 23-year-old soldier called Youssef Kais Abdin from near the port city of Latakia. He had been kidnapped a week earlier by the al Qa’ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra while serving in the north-east of Syria, close to the Iraqi border. The next his parents heard of Youssef was a call from their son’s mobile at 4am from al-Nusra telling them to look for a picture of their son online. When they did so, they saw his decapitated body in a pool of blood with his severed head placed on top of it.

The Syrian conflict is a civil war with all the horrors traditionally inflicted in such struggles wherever they are fought, be it Syria today or Russia, Spain, Greece, Lebanon or Iraq in the past. For the newly appointed American National Security Adviser Susan Rice, David Cameron or William Hague to pretend that this is a simple battle between a dictatorial government and an oppressed people is to misrepresent or misunderstand what is happening on the ground.

Evidence that both sides have committed supporters prepared to fight to the death is borne out by the estimate of some 100,000 dead published this week by the pro-rebel Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It concludes that fatal casualties come almost equally from the two sides in the civil war: broadly 25,000 of them government soldiers, 17,000 pro-government militia, 36,000 civilians and 14,000 rebel fighters, though the last two figures in particular are probably understated.

Homs, an ancient city at the centre of a province with a population of two million, is a good place to judge the course of the war. It was an early scene of anti-government action in 2011 in the course of which peaceful protests turned into irregular but devastating warfare. Most of Homs today is controlled by the Syrian army, aside from a few important areas including the Old City in the centre, which is held by rebels. Some 400,000 people have fled from here and are now scattered across the rest of the city. The houses they leave behind are occupied by opposition fighters, a fair number of whom are non-Syrian jihadi volunteers intent on waging holy war. “It is very difficult to talk to the Salafi [Islamic fundamentalists] in the Old City,” says Monsignor Michel Naaman, a Syriac Catholic priest who used to live there and who has sought to mediate and arrange ceasefires between the Free Syrian Army and government forces.

But the political geography of Homs is not just divided between pro- and anti-government forces but has grey areas of uncertain or disputed control, where hundreds of thousands of people are trying to survive pressures from both sides. They live in an atmosphere poisoned by fear of a kind I have not seen since Baghdad at the height of the sectarian civil war in 2006-7. Where else in the world would not just vulnerable refugees but army generals surrounded by armed guards make me promise not to reveal their names for fear that they and their families might be targeted for retaliation?

Homs is full of people who are refugees within their own city. A lowly government civilian employee, who gave his name as Walid but did not want his exact job identified, told me how he had been forced to move twice.

“I was living in al-Khalidiya when I was kidnapped by the Free Syrian Army because I worked for the government,” he said. “Fortunately, I knew somebody in the group who said I was a good man and they let me go, but the shock of my kidnap killed my father who died of a heart attack.” Munir moved to another area on the outskirts of northern Homs call al-Waar, where neither government nor rebels are in full control. He said, “I had to leave again because the rebels would set up checkpoints at night and ask people if they were Sunni or Alawite or they would ask for money or take your car.”   

I had some experience of al-Waar, the district from which Munir had to flee a second time. It is a large area in the north of Homs with high-rise buildings and plenty of accommodation with a population that has risen to 700,000 from 150,000 before the crisis. I had asked to visit a military hospital there earlier this week, had received permission and was guided there by security men in a civilian car. We took a highly circuitous route, driving west out of the city and then circling back to avoid “hot areas”.  Earth embankments started to appear on roads indicating they were not secure, including the main highway north to Hama. Our guides consulted with soldiers at checkpoints, which were more and more heavily fortified, as to whether it was safe to go ahead and we finally reached the hospital gates, only to be told that the head of the unit would not let us in without a permit from military intelligence.

Some people in Homs flee because they are in areas that support the rebels and others because they are known to work for the government. Most simply want to get to a place of safety. In Homs this is often means taking refuge in a school where the government provides food, water and the basics of life. At one school (again the person in charge asked me not to identify it), where I had met Khalid whose three sons were missing, I talked to Abu Nidal who worked in Homs water and sanitation department. He, too, came from Baba Amr and had left there for two months during the heavy fighting in 2012 when the Syrian army stormed it. “We went back and stayed six or seven months but [in March this year] the rebels came back, the situation was very bad and we had to leave again.” He said Baba Amr was now empty and when I drove past it the entrance to the district was blocked by rubble and there was nobody to be seen on the road beyond.

The policy of the government, as expressed by the Governor Ahmad Munir, is not to storm areas in Homs it does not control unless other options have been exhausted. He said he was trying to deal with each case “without a special military operation”. He had just arranged for the Syrian army to move into the rebel town of Tal Kalakh near the Lebanese border and for 39 local FSA leaders to surrender. He did not expect the same thing to happen in the Old City because “there are lots of gangs and nobody to negotiate with”. The storming of the rebel stronghold of Qusayr earlier this month may have made other communities more determined to avoid similar destruction.

Rickety local ceasefires do not solve the Syrian crisis but they do prevent a lot of people being killed, jailed or driven from their homes. The fact that people in Homs have become inured to living in a constant state of terror does not make their suffering any better. “It must be very dangerous to be a young man of military age here in Syria,” I said to a group of refugees in Homs, leading them to laugh dryly and respond: “No, you are wrong. They kill men in their 60s and 70s as well!” I asked if they expected things to get better and they dolefully shook their heads.

By pledging at a meeting in Qatar last weekend to send more arms and equipment to the rebels, the 11-member so-called “Friends of Syria”, including the US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, decided in effect to stoke the civil war in Homs and the rest of Syria. To pretend it is not a civil war or to support the rebel side as somehow uniquely representative of the Syrian people flies in the face of demonstrable facts. West of Homs in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean there is a long wall with pictures of many of the 2,000 young men from the city killed fighting as soldiers for the government in the last two years. The Syrian state, in control of most of the country, is not going to implode just because the rebels receive fresh supplies of money and arms.

As for Khalid and his hopeless search for his three missing sons, he says, “I wish the Free Syrian Army and the government would leave ordinary people out of it and go and fight each other.”

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