November 21, 2013
As government blockades on towns in the Damascus suburbs draw increasing humanitarian attention, approximately 3,000 civilians in the old city of Homs have lived under 500 days of siege.
Using a series of tunnels civilians constructed to thwart the blockade, 21 year-old Osama Abu Zaid fled Homs and Syria in July, arriving in Jordan as a refugee. He spoke with Syria Direct’s Mohammed Rabie about pro-opposition Alawites in Homs and why he believes the Syrian army’s slow advance in the city is deliberate.
Q: The city of al-Qusayr was under a long blockade but eventually fell in May. Why is Homs different?
A: Al-Qusayr is different geographically. Its town squares are wide. In Old Homs there is a massive amount of destruction due to daily shelling.
The regime is trying to win, but slowly, because it does not want a huge media storm about Homs. If the regime enters old Homs strongly and quickly, its units will commit large massacres among thousands of rebels and the civilians. Killing this numbers of people in one day would cause a huge media stir.
The Homs district of Khaldiyeh from the damaged Khalid al-Waleed Mosque.
Q: Why do you think the Old City of Homs still has not fallen? Where are rebels getting weapons?
A: Because of the neighborhood. The regime control al-Khalidia because of its wide streets and the nature of its building, but the rest of Old Homs is different. The streets are narrow, which helps the rebels maintain control, but random tank shelling from surrounding areas continues. The siege is a slow death for the rebels and the civilians inside.
The regime tries to storm the old city but the rebels are always on defense, so they are in a stronger position. The regime keeps shelling, daily.
There are mines and some manufacturing of ammunitions. There were tunnels but the regime took control of them. I left through one of them. Now there is shelling between and in the blockaded neighborhoods, so people can move around them. There are snipers on high buildings in regime-controlled neighborhoods.
Q: How are living conditions in the old city?
A: There are some houses with wells. But for food, there used to be many wheat mills in Khalidiya, before the regime occupied it, and the rebels were able to take from it. Now, it is relied upon fundamentally, in addition to some of the supplies stored before the siege. There is a lot of human suffering due to [the lack of] food and medicine.
Q: Is the battle for Homs purely sectarian?
A: There are connections between rebels and pro-revolution Alawites, who are inside the pro-regime neighborhoods and the shabiha headquarters as spies. They give the rebels inside blockaded Homs information. Without pro-revolution Alawites, those headquarters would be very hard to locate.
The main goal of these operations is to target and directly hit the regime militias’ main headquarters, which have a big role in enforcing the blockade. Every day, they shell and kill civilians and members of the Free Syrian Army. From the regime’s perspective, the operation was purely sectarian. From the rebel’s perspective, the operation targeted fighting elements with a fundamental role in the war.
Q: How are the rebels groups in the inside the Old City coordinating with the rebel groups outside the city?
A: Now there is no way to leave the blockade, as the tunnels been captured by the regime. Every day, civilians are appealing to humanitarian organizations for their exit [from Homs], but no one if listening to them.
Q: Have most people left old Homs? Where have they gone? Why are the people who remain there staying?
A: After the blockade, a high percentage of the people in Homs people moved elsewhere, most notably al-Wa’er. Now, the population there is one million, around 70% of Homs population. That neighborhood is currently under regime control. Every operation the rebels do, the regime starts shelling this neighborhood. It is clear revenge toward the civilians.