The Old City of Homs has been under siege for almost two years. It lies in ruins, surrounded by regime troops and suffering severe shortages of food.
But as those who remain struggle to decide whether to keep fighting or leave, Father Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch priest and the only European still in the rebel-held enclave of the old city, is going nowhere for now.
“If all the Christians leave, you break off ties with the past,” he told The Independent, in a rare interview by Skype from inside the Old City.
With the Syrian army having successfully besieged the area for 18 months, Father Van der Lugt describes a scene of utter destruction and chaos.
“Of course you can say there is no bread, and that’s true, but there are so many things absent; there is actually hardly anything left. So if you stay, you stay for the struggle.
“Everything else has disappeared; the food is bad, you have no family, you have no parents, you don’t have a life … there are no shops; there is nothing: only ruin.”
Father Van der Lugt has been in Syria for almost 50 years. He says – despite a ceasefire that has allowed 1,400 people to leave the city over the past week – he will remain with the 23 Christians who are the last of a community which used to consist of 60,000.
He says he is currently engaged in negotiations to allow safe passage for 11 Christians who want to leave.
The dire situation in the Old City – many of those evacuated suffer from malnutrition – has led to discord among those who have stayed behind.
“There is a struggle about what will happen – will we keep fighting or go home?” says Father Van der Lugt. “But at the moment it is not clear which side has the upper hand.”
One of the main reasons groups are considering leaving is because they miss their families. Many are in contact with the home front by their mobile phones.
“They are husbands, fathers, or unmarried but they have been living for two years without a family, without seeing their parents and they have to do their own laundry, cook their own food. They are very eager to return to a family structure,” he says.
A rare ceasefire between the two sides in Syria’s civil war has allowed the evacuation of dozens of people, including 18 children. But the Syrian army’s insistence that it detain all men of fighting age for questioning as they leave the area has prompted concerns for their safety.
The United Nations announced yesterday it would no longer evacuate people until the fate of 220 men, including 14 children, who have been detained became clear.
Under the original agreement only women, children and the elderly would be eligible to leave the besieged area.
The Syrian regime says men aged between 15 and 55 are potential combatants, and the men were aware that they would be treated as such upon evacuation. Under the deal with the UN, the government is supposed to put on trial those who have committed crimes and release the rest.
The men are being held at al-Andalus school, and the UN is present at the facility. “We will now concentrate on the process of completing the regularisation of [the detained men’s] status,” said Matthew Hollingworth, deputy UN leader for the Homs mission. “Only when that’s done will we look at another evacuation.”
The Jesuit priest, meanwhile, fills his mornings with prayer, Buddhist meditation and reading books by Christian and Muslim mystics. In the afternoon and evening he visits people around the destroyed neighbourhood, on whom he is largely reliant for his evening meals.
There is running water, but his food consists largely of olives in the morning and a kind of grain soup with some weeds, picked off the side of the road, for lunch.
So far, he says he has had cordial relations with the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra who live just down the road.
However, the aid that has entered the city over the past week, according to the United Nations enough to feed 2,500 people for a month, is insufficient he says.
“It’s not great. I think we will return to the same situation as before in two weeks if food stops coming in.”