To see the consequences of war, come to Homs. Known to the Romans as Emesa, Syria’s third-largest city is only a 100-mile drive north of Damascus on the highway to Aleppo. A multitude of sects once shared the city, which spreads outward from its stone-built historic center into modern, high-rise suburbs. If you threw a shoe out the window, Homs’ inhabitants used to say, it was bound to hit a doctor or an engineer. Now most of the doctors and engineers, like the buildings in which they dwelled, have vanished.
The Cradle of the Revolution
Homs boasts a sprawling university campus, magnificent mosques, towering church spires, parks, libraries and hospitals. Before The Syrian Civil War war broke out, the old city and its covered bazaar housed a large Christian minority that thrived among its Sunni neighbors. The southern outskirts were the redoubt of urbanizing peasants, many of them from the Alawite sect of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who wove themselves into the fabric of Homsi society. In the late 20th century, the Alawites came to form about a quarter of the city’s population.
Nearly seven years of war have transformed Homs in body and soul. As the cradle of the revolution, it was the first major city in Syria to follow the rural southern border town of Daraa into peaceful, then violent, protests against the government. The old city and the Khaldiyeh, Baba Amr and Waer quarters evolved into rebel fortresses, besieged by the government army outside and dominated by insurgents — most of them jihadists — within. It took the government 4 1/2 years to force the rebels to surrender, many of them agreeing to relocate with their families and small arms to the country’s largest insurgent concentration in nearby Idlib province.
The landscape, more than two years after the fighters departed, evokes the devastation in Berlin, Dresden and Warsaw at the end of World War II. Hundreds of acres of what had been comfortable apartment complexes are now mangled mountains of deformed concrete. Homs is quiet, the war having moved to Idlib, Afrin and other regions, but the city has yet to recover. “Homs’ population was about 650,00 before the war,” a police source said. “It’s now between one-quarter and 30 percent of that.”
The humanitarian information website ReliefWeb studied health conditions in Homs and concluded:
“All communities reported that they were unable to empty septic tanks and that connections to the sewage system were blocked, and 65 percent reported having insufficient water to meet household needs, including Zafaraniya (neighborhood). Zafaraniya was also one of two communities that reported communicable diseases as a predominant health challenge.”
When the Guns Fall Silent
Few people have returned to the once quaint old city around the souks, or marketplaces. A friend of mine, a Christian born in Homs who lost his house in the old city, said only about 10 percent of the 20,000 families who lived there before 2011 have moved back. As we walked through the area, we saw why. No structure had escaped the destruction left by four years of battle: collapsed roofs, half-standing walls, burned apartments and empty space where houses once stood. Yet many buildings were still intact. The governorate has restored the old souks for the day when their customers return. We had a delicious lunch of Homs food in a newly refurbished restaurant while children played in the narrow street outside. A Greek Orthodox bishop came to gossip, and the waiters offered more food than we could eat.
The government, its treasury depleted by the conflict and under international sanctions, has little to offer the residents who want to rebuild. The United Nations, whose own budget has shrunk amid a lack of international donations this year, offers minimal assistance for restoring schools, hospitals and housing. Inhabitants must rely on what few resources they have to rebuild.
More glaring than the physical destruction, however, is the changed sectarian environment wrought by the war. Much of the trust that once existed among Sunnis, Christians and Alawites has diminished. Fabrice Balanche, in his excellent report “Sectarianism in Syria’s Civil War,” wrote:
“As early as fall 2011, for example, Sunni insurgents in Homs began daily bombing of the city’s Alawi neighborhoods, with the aim of expelling Alawites from a city where many regarded them as intruders. Some observers speculated that the regime deliberately let the situation in Homs deteriorate so that sectarianism would fracture the local revolutionary movement. And in areas where the regime resorted to direct, violent repression, pacifist demonstrators were quickly overtaken by militarized opposition as people picked up weapons to defend themselves. These armed elements then organized by sect; as in many other conflicts worldwide, violence created stark dilemmas in which people had to make tough choices with group consequences.”
One of the toughest choices the city’s residents faced when the artillery fell silent was whether to return to a battered Homs or to make a new life elsewhere. Many Christians, for centuries an integral part of the city, chose the latter. Visas for Australia and Canada were not hard for the educated Christian middle class to obtain, and many Muslims have found ways out, possibly for good. My friend, who said that 90 percent of his friends were gone, has decided to stay. “I can’t leave it,” he told me after lunch. “I don’t know why. I’ve had many occasions to leave the city, but I can’t. All of Homs is my home.”
The city where he is raising his children no longer resembles the one in which he grew up. “Before 2011, we lived in real … what’s the word? … harmony.” And now? “It’s all gone.”
Main image:Destruction in Bab Dreeb area in Homs, Syria, 5 April 2012 by Bo Yaser