Published on 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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10 reader comments

  1. Man says:

    I thought there was no place like Homs..

    Great article and insight. I firmly believe that the Syrian truth is not as cut and dry as a oppressive tyrant detached from the population, especially on this Jubilee weekend.

  2. Kenny Griffiths says:

    Superb blog Alex,I didn’t realise Homs was split in such a way…..

  3. Arunkbar says:

    We live with many worlds views; one will be ours, then there are the others. Sometimes it’s our world looking out, sometimes other worlds looking in, sometimes both at once, creating disbelief, accusation, mischievous opportunism, or feelings of helplessness. But what to do? Report what you see and hope it’s the truth? But then there could be as many ‘truths’ as there are world views. So who’s truth is this reality? Whatever ones view is, and whatever one sees, or even chooses to see, one cannot deny human suffering, but we are still left with the conundrum of disbeliefs, accusations, mischievous opportunism, or feelings of helplessness. Fareed Zakaria (Times magazine June 11 2012), concludes that ‘it would be morally far more satisfying to do something dramatic that would topple Assad tomorrow. But starving his regime might prove the more effective’. I might also agree with that view too, but what reality would this be, more disbelief, accusation, mischievous opportunism, or just a feeling of helplessness? One thing would be certain, more human suffering!

  4. Margaret brandreth-jones says:

    Beautifully written piece Alex . Can’t understand the need for destruction..so sad.

  5. Question All says:

    Glad to see you back home Alex, safe and well. Your reports have shone a light in dark places.

    Could it be argued that the rebels of the Free Syrian Army are using the civilian population as ‘human shields’ by basing themselves in densely populated areas?

    If the state’s army comes under fire from these areas it is fairly inevitable that it is going to fire back, usually with interest.

    Wasn’t this ‘human shield’ approach widely condemned by the west when it came to the war in the Balkans and later in Iraq?

    It seems that if a hostile state (to the west) uses the population as a human shield it will be condemned by western governments, but if western and Saudi backed ‘rebels’ hide behind the local population, they are heralded as ‘heroes’ and the state condemned as the ‘terrorists’.

    Double standards?

    1. June Liveley says:

      Question all.
      You may have forgotten how the revolution started, with the arrest and beatings of young students in Deraa, who wrote anti regime language on a wall in Deraa. When the people demonstrated against this brutal treatment of their children, regime forces then began to shoot the protesters. The FSA went into such areas to try and protect demonstrators against regime brutality, because the people had nothing to defend themselves with. They were there trying to protect them, not use them as human shields. It is important to remember how the violence began.

  6. Philip Edwards says:

    Alex,

    Please don’t let this terrible episode go. Please follow the leads wherever they go. It is the least the innocent victims and their families deserve. Whoever did it must be brought to justice.

    My suspicion is that it involved external forces. Not because Assad is incapable of such an act, but because it makes no sense for him to commit this evil at a time when he is protesting his innocence. If it was at his behest, why would he order the murderers to wear identifying marks and to openly state which sect they came from?

    Even allowing for the fact that all civil wars lead to vendetta and score-settling, the Houla massacre reeks of suspicious behaviour.

    In the circumstances the only thing I will believe is solid evidence. Remember the lies about babies being torn from incubators during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait? At times like this there are no lows people will not plumb.

    Your reports are exemplary. I hope you never change.

  7. June Liveley says:

    Two very different worlds indeed. Possibly the safe areas were the untouched alawite areas of Homs, wich always appear to be fairly prosperous in certain areas of Syria. That’s not to say that there are no poor alawite areas in Syria, because there are such places that have also been neglected by the regime. However, it’s sad that Alex Thomson was too late to see the beautiful old town of Homs that is now almost reduced to rubble. The regime also destroyed the old city of Hamma in 1984, even the graveyards so no-one could even find where their families were buried anymore; now they are busy every day destroying more of Hamma.
    The reports have been enlightening and honest, particularly the report on the Houla massacre. So once again, thank you to Alex Thomson for having the nerve to go where the UN don’t, won’t, can’t, or whatever reason. Good to see some independent reporting for a change.

  8. Olga says:

    Alex,

    It’s a relief to see that true journalism still exists and doesn’t follow a political line.

    Please keep up your admirable work so that people on the outside are able to sift through the propaganda that they are fed.

    We don’t receive enough reports from the residents of Homs who have fled due to the disgusting violence of the so called “rebels”.

    What the outside world doesn’t know is that Syrian public opinion is in favour of the Government regaining control of the “rebel”-held pockets so that they can return to their homes. People want democracy but they don’t believe that the “rebels” and the Gulf states-sponsored terrorism will lead them there. Syria doesn’t want to become another Iraq.

  9. Scots Law says:

    Look at me, look at me! This reporter is so dire I actually laugh at his thoughts. CH4 really have one with this guy.

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