AMMAN: Two and a half years after Syrian rebels left central Homs city as part of a ceasefire agreement under which “the capital of the revolution” returned to regime control, more than half a dozen residents tell Syria Direct that they and their city are grappling with the scars of a violent, sectarian past.
Homs today, residents tell Syria Direct, is broadly a tale of two cities: The east and southeast, where sectarian militias hold sway, are majority Alawite-Shiite. The western neighborhoods are densely populated, under-served and majority Sunni. In the center of the city sits the gaping scar of destroyed Old Homs, a ghostly wasteland that stands as a reminder of months of battles and heavy regime bombardment.
An ancient city, Homs has lived many lives. Two thousand years ago, the local people, and later the Romans, called it Emesa. In modern times, Homs became an industrial center, the capital of the largest Syrian province and the perennial butt of an array of popular jokes about its residents’ supposed simplemindedness.
Before the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Homs was known as one of Syria’s most religiously and ethnically mixed cities. A majority-Sunni city, Homs boasted sizeable populations of Alawites, Shiites and Christians. Though the city’s residents were largely divided into their own neighborhoods, communities intersected in public and private life.
Then the uprising began. In spring 2011, Homs was one of the first Syrian cities to witness popular demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, with early protests centered in the city’s Sunni-heavy central districts of Old Homs.
Despite the city’s diversity, or perhaps because of it, the anti-Assad uprising in Homs almost immediately took on a sectarian nature. Demonstrations were based in traditionally Sunni neighborhoods. Early, violent responses reportedly came from pro-regime militias called the shabiha, based in Alawite-majority bastions of regime support in the city, such as the Zahraa and Akramah districts.
Homs city, April 2014. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Homsi.
Residents of many Homs districts continued to protest for months after the uprising was initially quelled elsewhere in Syria, earning the city the moniker “the capital of the revolution.”
Government tanks rolled in. Soldiers were deployed. Checkpoints went up across the city. Fighting, bombardment, massacres, car bombs and reported sectarian killings claimed the lives of both supporters and opponents of the regime. Homs residents grew increasingly wary of each other, and the city further divided along sectarian lines.
“At the beginning of the crisis, we were afraid of spending time with our Sunni friends,” Rashad, a university student and resident of the Alawite-majority Akramah neighborhood told Syria Direct. “We were scared that one of them might agree with the terrorists and kidnap us.”
Rebels based themselves in the Sunni neighborhoods such as Baba Amr, Bab Sabaa and Old Homs, while neighborhoods to the east generally remained in regime hands. As the bloody urban warfare unfolded—street by street, room by room–government forces imposed a blockade on the rebel areas and heavily bombarded opposition ones. And through it all, thousands of people fled their homes, seeking shelter elsewhere in Syria or in neighboring countries.
Finally, in May 2014, after losing most of their territory and enduring a punishing two-year blockade by regime forces, the last remaining rebels surrendered and left central Homs and the city—much of it a shattered wasteland after years of fighting—to government control. The one exception was the Waer district, a western suburb to which hundreds of fighters were evacuated. Others went to the province’s northern countryside.
One year later, in 2015, Homs governor Talal al-Barazi asserted that “today, Homs is witnessing security, stability and a return to normal life.”
Contrary to the governor’s assessment, more than half a dozen Homs residents from across the city’s religious spectrum tell Syria Direct that two and a half years after the rebels left, it is difficult to move on.
Years of fighting, bombardment and siege not only destroyed the streets and buildings of central Homs, they say, but deepened sectarian tensions. Today, Sunnis stay in majority-Sunni areas for fear of kidnappings and arrest. Alawites and Shiites likewise. Children and young people no longer interact freely and make friends across sectarian lines at schools and universities as they once did.
How does a community, physically and socially torn apart by war, come together again? Homs residents tell Syria Direct: slowly, incompletely, painfully, and perhaps not at all.
“There is a huge tear in the social fabric of Homs,” Salim Najjar, a lifelong resident of Syria’s battered, third-largest city told Syria Direct. The way people live and interact has changed, depending on their sectarian identity and history during the war, he says.
Silently watching over it all, the destroyed districts of Old Homs are a visceral reminder of the horrors of the recent past.
“Homs is not as it once was,” says Najjar, who lives in the al-Ghouta neighborhood of Homs. “Neither the stones, nor the people.”
‘You can’t trust anybody’
“What Homs witnessed throughout the crisis is not easily forgotten,” Rabia al-Mashhadani, a lawyer and Homs city resident told Syria Direct. “Especially since the physical signs of the disaster that befell Homs remain,” he added, referring to the bombed-out shell of Old Homs.
What remains of the oldest and most rebellious districts of Homs makes a striking picture: a post-apocalyptic wasteland; an urban moonscape. Today, these destroyed neighborhoods of the city remain largely lifeless, awaiting large-scale reconstruction.
“Everyone knows that Homs is not what it used to be,” Abu Wissam, a 43-year-old teacher and resident of the Alawite-majority al-Arman neighborhood told Syria Direct. “Without exception, all the neighborhoods in Homs are filled with tension and worry about the unknown.”
“You don’t know who is plotting against you.”
Homs governor Talal al-Barazi (center, in stripes) on a repaved Zahraa neighborhood street in August 2016. Photo courtesy of Homs Province Press Office.
“Social cohesion has become quite complicated on a sectarian level,” Akramah district resident and Baath University student Rashad told Syria Direct. Whereas he recalls avoiding Sunni friends earlier in the conflict, that dynamic reversed after most of Homs returned to government control, and “they started to completely avoid us.”
While universities and schools were once the most integrated places in the city, now college-aged friend groups are as divided as the city itself. “Your university friends are your neighborhood or childhood friends,” said Rashad. “You can’t trust anybody enough to make real new friendships.”
The relationship citizens have with the state and local security forces in Homs differs depending on where they live and the nature of their sectarian identity, residents told Syria Direct. Residents of majority Sunni neighborhoods in west Homs face the greatest scrutiny, they said.
Abu Murad, a Sunni resident of the Projects district of west Homs described a tense atmosphere in what he called the “Sunni neighborhoods.”
“We’re searched a lot, cursed by security forces or the shabiha at the checkpoints,” said Abu Murad. “They consider us terrorists. People in the neighborhood have this pervasive fear of being detained at any moment.” Checkpoints in most of Homs’s districts are manned by state security forces and members of militias, while in Alawite neighborhoods such as Zahraa, they are dominated by local militiamen whose headquarters are nearby.
There is reason for elevated security in Homs city. Namely, a string of car bombings and suicide attacks against the city, with more than half a dozen striking the Zahraa district since mid-2015, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Dozens of people have been killed and wounded in the assaults, the latest this past September, leading to protests and sharp criticism of the city’s governor and security services by residents of the neighborhood.
One resident of the Zahraa district is Radwan Abbas, a professor at the Baath University Law School in the city. Despite security concerns, he says that the social fabric in Homs is “closely knit” and that “life is gradually returning to normal.”
Increased security precautions are necessary, he says, “because of the change in thinking that happened in those [west Homs] neighborhoods while they were mixed with the terrorists and takfiri thought.”
To combat that “change in thinking,” the government periodically holds seminars and rehabilitation initiatives in the city “to help its people,” said Abbas.
West Homs resident Abu Murad, who attended one such seminar, said they are attended by Homs governor Talal al-Barazi, local security officials, members of the ruling Baath party and a representative from Russia’s Hmeimim reconciliation center.
“In the seminars, they talk about civil peace,” said Abu Murad. “It’s basically mandatory for people to attend because those who don’t will be considered as being against the state.”
On October 15, the Baath party in Homs held a “national assembly for the people of Homs” to “encourage the local truces and national unity in the province.” The assembly was attended by an assortment of local notables and state officials consistent with Abu Murad’s account.
Complicating such overt attempts at reconciliation, the war continues for 80,000 residents of the blockaded Waer district west of Homs city, the last neighborhood held by the rebels. Regime shelling and sniper attacks killed more than 20 people and injured 150 others there in November alone. While renewed truce talks this week put a stop to the daily attacks, the district is an open wound.
“The violence isn’t far away,” Homs lawyer al-Mashhadani told Syria Direct. “The countryside is still on fire.”
A new Homs?
One-third of Homs’s more than 30 districts require urgent rehabilitation and reconstruction, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Since announcing a master plan to rebuild Homs in August 2015, Homs governor Talal al-Barazi, in coordination with the Homs Chamber of Commerce and with funding from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), has moved forward with the reconstruction of the city. The UNDP is currently seeking bids for projects in Homs city including debris removal, sewage network repair and health center rehabilitation in several districts.
Al-Hamidiyah street in Homs in April, 2014. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Homsi.
Work began earlier this year to rebuild Old Homs and its historic covered souq, which makes up one-fifth of the area of the oldest neighborhoods. So far, thousands of cubic meters of debris have been cleared from the neighborhoods. Further east, the first stage of reconstruction is underway in the Alawite-majority neighborhoods of al-Abbasiyah and Muhajireen.
Not everyone is happy with the progress made so far. Residents of Sunni-majority west Homs neighborhoods told Syria Direct that they believe their districts are low on the regime’s list of reconstruction priorities. They allege that the regime prioritizes repairs in its own strongholds, repaving roads there, as razed, formerly rebel-held districts lie in waste.
“It’s true that most of the abandoned neighborhoods are Sunni, and many of them have been persecuted, but Alawites may be the victims in the end,” said Abu Wissam, a resident of the Alawite-majority al-Arman district of east Homs.
“Nobody knows what the future holds, so each side is seeking to destroy the other in order to ensure its own survival.”