5 Jun 2012

Homs – where two utterly different worlds coexist

Beirut. Vukovar. Grozny. Sarajevo. Mogadishu. And now Homs.

This large city, two smooth hours up the dual carriageway from Damascus, now the latest in history’s long line of towns and cities whose very name conjures images of pulverised concrete and people, across our relatively peaceful planet.

It is the essence of news to focus on what has gone wrong. And that constant focus throws a surprise or two when you complete the journey from the capital.

What confronts, upon arrival at Homs, is a road from Damascus vision and thus not what you’ve been led to expect. Well, not at first.

Of course, there’s a Syrian army checkpoint on the southern fringe of Homs, but it’s the only one you’ll meet right now all the way from the capital (which also has them).

All around are perfectly normal-looking districts of high-density blocks of flats of half a dozen floors. Satellite dishes, window boxes full of flowers, you’re surprised to see.

The first morning we drove in, children played on swings in a park. The municipal sprinklers tended the lawns and open spaces, shimmering miniature rainbows in the low eastern sun.

At crossroads, traffic police in brilliant-white shirts and helmets whistle in equal petulance and futility at vehicles which move rather better when they up and leave at the end of their shift.

Here’s a man on an old-style sit-up-and-beg bicycle, one hand on the handlebars, the other round his giggling granddaughter, perhaps a couple of years old.

Buses drop and collect people coming to and from their places of work.

And yet…all the while the distant (and sometimes not all that distant) crack of a high-velocity bullet. Or perhaps a burst, six or eight rounds loosed off.

To the west, the flare stack from the large oil refinery burns away against a backdrop of the western mountains which mark the smugglers’ routes over the frontier to Lebanon. Filthy tankers line up normally outside the refinery gates. Workers pass to and fro.

In town I have a moment to grab a haircut at the Safir hotel. Of an evening, the grilled fish and chilled white wine come highly recommended.

And yet…the only guests here appear to be the Channel 4 News correspondent, cameraman and translator. The barber has little custom beyond tidying me up. And besides us, the guests are UN monitors from Scandinavia, Francophone Africa and Ireland. Outside, the pool is empty, save a couple of feet of green, stagnant rainwater. Soldiers with AK 47s have a sandbagged position out here.

In the Palestinian quarter in the south of the city, though, every shop in the bazaar is open as normal. We pass a pleasant half-hour picking up a local phone and card in one of the shops.

Tea is produced and they tell me it’s busier than ever here. Why? And then comes a rich irony of this war: people have moved here to escape the fighting in town. They reckon it’s safest here.

There it is: Syrian refugees moving to the Palestinian refugee camp for safety in their own land, their own city.

After some time you begin to see it’s not all that normal below the surface. The traffic, they say, is nothing compared to “before this trouble”. Look again at those flats, and you see most of the shutters remain down during the day. The families have gone south to Damascus, north to Aleppo or west to the coast.

Move then, towards the city centre. Walk say, from our hotel – it’s 10 minutes at most.

You’ll cross the first busy dual carriageway. More of those irrelevant traffic police, making no change with the Acme Thunderer or regional equivalent.

Cross and head right – and suddenly the road ahead is quite empty. Cars are directed elsewhere but the drivers all seem to know anyway. You notice soldiers now. Sandbags and serious-looking checkpoints are suddenly clear. You get waved away.

“Sir – not safe! Not safe!”

You’ve come to the beginning of the end of government control. 100 yards on or so, and a final checkpoint – or lookout, since nobody ever passes this way to be checked.

Here, the first signs of bullet marks splattering the walls, taking out the windows of long-shut shops, offices and flats above. Silence. Then the unmistakeable crump of a shell exploding, far more urgent, nearer and more menacing here in the deserted streets marking the entry into no-man’s land.

There is clearly no safe way to cross. Only ways which might be a little safer – but nobody knows.

We made it sitting in the back of a Red Crescent ambulance heading across to collect bodies. This was not good for morale but offered at least some protection, politically or morally, though evidently not physically.

The ambulance has a bullet hole in the middle of the front windscreen and two in the side next to the treatment area.

From the window you pass the dead zone of the wrecked tower block: blue facade, smashed windows, once the city centre hotel. The mosque across the road crumpled by heavy weaponry.

Palm-trees blown from the soil into roads. Street lamps cut in half. Stray cats. Piles of rotting and sometimes smouldering rubbish up barely passable side-streets.

It’s been so long now in Homs – 11 months, they’ll tell you here – that weeds grown in the gutters and any tarmac cracks are now a couple of feet high. Nature peacefully colonising a broken landscape of extreme violence.

Then suddenly, just as you cross the square, a young man on a motorbike – so often the first sign of life when you cross the lines to rebel-held Syria. One bike becomes two, then five. You are beckoned forward urgently.

You’re across. You’re still alive. You’re now entering “free Syria”.

It is not the Homs we’ve left behind just half a mile south at most. Life and buildings are shattered this side. The heavy weapons of Homs are fired one way only, from the Syrian army into these areas, and it shows.

So let me leave you now, as I have left Homs and Syria, with two abiding images. Two groups of young men. Two worlds. Either side of no-man’s-land.

In the rebel-held frontline area a group of men approaches our camera, all red-eyed, wild, near-hysterical. They scream about incoming shells, the death, the maiming. They shout about chemical weapons, and a tank shell is produced, then a rocket fin, and another and another…

The urge to tell, to show whatever they perceived their reality to be, is pathological, an imperative, a need. We can find no evidence of chemical shells, nor can the UN monitors.

And then, less than half a mile from these men, their fellow Syrians, gathering, open-mouthed and pointing, at the viewfinder as our camera plays back in the hotel lobby.

They’re hushed. Amazed to see streets so close but from a different, shut-off world. They’re calm, clean, far from the wired, shell-shocked world so near.

But each, utterly uncomprehending now, of the daily world the other lives, in one place, one city, one Homs.

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