World news | Syria
Amid deserted shops and military patrols, one of the few journalists to gain access to Syria’s troubled central city encountered a world of guarded conversations and shadowy rumours amid the funereal silence of a military lockdown
A world of guarded conversations and shadowy rumours amid the funereal silence of a military lockdown

James Harkin in Homs · 19/11/2011 ·

Syrian soldiers guarding the streets of Homs earlier this month. Photograph: Yin Bogu/Xinhua Press/CorbisSyrian soldiers guarding the streets of Homs earlier this month. Photograph: Yin Bogu/Xinhua Press/Corbis

On Thursday morning, I woke up in Homs, the city labelled by the international media as the “capital of the Syrian revolution”.

Homs has been in more or less open revolt since at least April, but in recent weeks what is going on here has acquired ominous new significance. Facing the full force of a crackdown on their demonstrations by the Syrian army and police, at least some of the city’s residents have taken up arms, either to defend themselves and their communities or to go on the attack.

Outside Syria and in the international media, the siege has become a cause célèbre. But events here show not only the courage and the forbearance of its citizens, but also the traps that lie in wait for an unhappy people suppressed by a brutal military crackdown.

I was lucky to get here. It’s not quite true that all foreign journalists are banned from Syria, but it was extremely difficult to get in, even before the uprising, and those who succeed are carefully shepherded around. It took me two journeys back and forth from Beirut even to get across the border into Damascus.

After a few days there, I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to Homs. A policeman was on hand to check foreign passports, but fortunately he didn’t bother to check mine carefully – it clearly indicates, by means of a Syrian government stamp, that I am a journalist.

My second stroke of luck was to have been befriended by an 18-year-old boy as we boarded the bus. An engineering student on his way back home to Homs, he was concerned that here was an idiotic tourist about to get himself into trouble. “There are no tourists in Homs,” he told me, looking serious. “My mother and father are afraid to go out. Yesterday my sister saw a body in the street, and she’s been crying ever since.”

On arrival, he ushered me past any prying eyes and directly into a taxi, going out of his way to take me straight to a hotel in the city centre. The city centre is the only safe place, he said.

Homs is a city of more than half a million people in the heart of the country. It’s where Syrians go to escape the hustle of Damascus, to let their hair down in its cafes and restaurants, or watch football: Homs boasts two football teams, as well as a museum where tourists can read about the famous battles that were fought here.

Nowadays it’s fighting another battle: the city is under total military lockdown. The hotel I’ve been taken to overlooks the main square and its now infamous clock tower, where the Syrian army apparently ran amok and gunned down peaceful demonstrators in April.

Since then, the violence has moved into the residential areas, and into the shadows. In the weeks before my arrival the death rate rose, making it the most violent place in the country.

On the road into the city, we passed at least 50 military vehicles that were going in the same general direction: a convoy of long green buses, lorries carrying munitions, and trucks with weary-looking soldiers sitting in the back, smoking and sleeping.

There were no tanks, but on one lorry was mounted what looked like a huge gun. Near Homs I saw one tank sitting by the side of the road, guarding a broad, freshly dug ditch about 100 yards long by the side of the highway. It might have been a trench.

Here in the city centre, however, all is quiet. Funereal. The battles between the Syrian army, the demonstrators and unknown armed groups take place just a mile or two away from here in densely packed residential areas like Baba Amr; another flashpoint, the hotel manager tells me, is Bab al-Sebaa, just a few hundred yards up the road.

He looks at me quizzically, but doesn’t ask questions – he’s happy to have a customer, whoever I am. The hotel covers four spacious floors, but tonight I’ll be the only guest. Before the disturbances there were 75 staff here, but now there are only three during the day and one in the evening.

In my luxury business suite a huge cockroach is circling through the air in the bathroom; when I turn on the TV, it sizzles at the socket and then goes quiet. I was promised a room without a street window, just in case. But there’s no hot water, so I ask to be moved to another suite. This, too, has no hot water; it will be working very soon, he assures me.

I say I’m going to get some food, but the manager is gently solicitous. I shouldn’t really go out, he says – I can eat at the hotel. When I tell him I need to stretch my legs, he points out the window at a single shopping street. Walk down there, he says, but don’t go too far and don’t be too long. Trouble is only a few hundred yards away: a short walk in the other direction, and you enter Bab al-Sebaa.

As I walk through the retail district, people are emerging from government offices and there are signs of normality returning to the city; at a functioning street market, some business is being done. Across the road from the main square, a skinny man in a long leather jacket is staring around and barks instructions to another man.

People hurry along the street and don’t idle, going about their business under the gaze of authority. And even here, everyone shuts up shop in the afternoon and scurries home.

In an electronics showroom, beneath a huge poster of President Bashar al-Assad and his father, I get chatting to a young man of about 20; he seems prosperous, starting off the conversation by talking about his expensive car. He’s also a little guarded, suspicious of my interest. “Why did you come here? By accident? How did you get in? There are checkpoints. Didn’t you know that the army are here, that there’s fighting?”

Who are they fighting, I ask him – terrorists? “No. The people.” Whose side you are you on, I ask. Can you say? There are two other people in the shop; he grins and looks at the floor. “No,” he says, making a show of not answering. “I don’t want to say.”

There have been rumours of kidnaps, he says – paramilitaries from the president’s own Shia Alawite sect who tell drivers to go down a certain road and then kidnap or kill you. You can avoid getting hurt if you stay at home all evening, but it’s no life. “If this keeps up I’m going to emigrate,” he says. “Maybe to Australia, until things get better.”

A friend of his was arrested yesterday after a demonstration at nearby Kalamoon University, between here and Damascus – one of the jewels of Assad’s fitful programme of economic modernisation. “The police were using electrical prods,” he says.

Maybe I could take a taxi to look around the city, I ask. Don’t do that, he says – if the driver is a friend of the government he will take you to their offices, and you’ll be arrested for being a journalist. I hadn’t told him that I was a journalist. I don’t want to be arrested, I say: I have a plane to catch. He turns a little testy. “It’s OK for you,” he says. “All that will happen to you is that you’ll be deported.”

Have you seen the tanks, he asks. Not in the town centre, I say. There are some parked just a few streets away, he says; I’d take you, but the soldiers might see you if you get too close. After the Arab League decision to suspend Syria three days ago, they painted them blue. “It was their way of saying the tanks aren’t really tanks any more.” He laughs at the innocence of it.

Amazingly there are still sporadic demonstrations throughout the city during the day. In one cafe I walk into, two workers are leaning out the window as though listening for something – for a moment they thought they could hear slogans and chanting, one of them says, but it might have been something else.

On the same street I find a fancy patisserie where a well-dressed manager in his 30s is doing very little. When the other customer in the shop shuffles off, he becomes much more talkative, smiling at me, but also deadly serious.

“There are 5,000 killed here in the last six months,” he says, a figure much higher than official estimates. “There is no water, gas or electricity for most people here.” Now I know why my hotel has no hot water.

“Unesco send things here, but this is no good. We can’t go on like this.” He pats an imaginary child. “They are killing little children.”

Why did I come here, he wants to know. Aleppo is safe, he says: there are lots of safe places. Should the president go? “How can he stay,” he says, rolling his eyes, “after all this killing?” He knows this much: “I want my freedom.”

Does he support the Arab League’s suspension of Syria? He nods. Does he say these things to people?” “No,” he says, as if the answer should be obvious, and runs his index finger across his throat.

His boss, a small businessman who lives outside Homs, arrives and pulls down the shop’s shutters. Nobody is buying anything, and it’s getting dark. For the next few hours, over leaf tea and cake, we talk.

The businessman’s mobile phone keeps interrupting us, with friends chiding him for even going to Homs. When he’s here he doesn’t leave the shop, he says – just comes and goes.

On the television we switch between Syrian state TV and al-Jazeera. The former is showing a demonstration of 300,000 people in Damascus in support of the president. The shop manager is quieter now, but both my companions agree that the president can still muster a measure of support for his ability to hold the country together, even if not in Homs.

Al-Jazeera is showing grainy images on mobile phones of detainees being brutalised by soldiers, while Syrian state television is showing the bound, bloodied bodies of men it says were assassinated by terrorists in Homs. All of this must be happening just a mile or two away, but no one really knows who is doing what to whom.

“Eleven killed today in Homs,” chuckles the businessman blackly, reading the statistic from a TV channel. “Homs is now the big problem.”

It doesn’t help that Syria is a police state. In the vacuum, rumours multiply. As we eat our cake, the businessman treats us to some of them. There is a story, he says, that al-Jazeera is paying people $20,000 for photos taken on their mobile phone. The self-styled Free Syrian Army, an outfit that seems to be on the rise, and which is posting a lot of video on the internet, might be out there fighting, and if so the best of luck to them – on balance, however, he thinks that they’re an illusion puffed up by Turkey. It’s said that both the government and the opposition are paying people to attend their demonstrations in Damascus. And he’s heard it on good authority that the police are pretending that drug dealers and criminals are demonstrators; after all, he says, that way they’re “outside the law” and can simply be killed.

“All the conspiracies are true,” says the businessman. “Turkey and Qatar and the Saudis have their own axes to grind, and reasons to weaken Syria; they’re playing with us.

“Arabs,” he continues, “what have they done for us? They’re oh so concerned about us, but less keen when it comes to giving us visas to their countries.”

The shop manager agrees, but maintains he’s still proud to be Arab. Both can agree that they’re Syrian above all else. Nato gets no more than a snort; no Syrian, says the businessman, wants another Iraq. He doesn’t even want another Libya.

Syria is very far from being another Iraq – at least for the moment. From what little I saw, travelling back and forth between Damascus and Homs, the talk of “civil war” is premature and a little overheated. Most of Damascus is carrying on very much as normal, even if its residents are a little more hushed and fearful than usual. It’s in the capital’s suburbs – places such as Douma and Harasta, where huge swaths of the country’s neglected, humiliated poor live – that the demonstrations after Friday prayers occur.

But what’s embarrassing for the authorities about Homs, says the businessman, is that here the violence is taking place within the confines of the city itself; that’s why they’re cracking down so hard.

Taking pictures on your mobile phone can be enough to invite trouble. After people were gunned down in the huge demonstration at the clock tower in April, he says, Sana, the Syrian news agency, brought crowds and people armed with cameraphones to the main square to show that life was getting back to normal. But, according to the businessman, a police sniper saw the cameraphone snappers and opened fire. A few people were hurt. “Mistakes have been made,” he says, with another gallows chuckle.

He thinks that the president is a smart and decent man, undermined by shadowy forces within his own security establishment. “He didn’t sleep for three days after some of the killings, a friend of mine who knows told me.” But should the president stay in power and try to reform the system? “Too little, too late,” he says, with a flick of the wrist. “Go.”

The businessman is sleeping above the shop tonight, and the shop manager will walk the short distance home as usual. But he’s not happy about it: he’s had friends who have been hit by stray bullets.

Why not get a taxi, I ask. It’s becoming difficult, he says. Both my companions are Sunni, and both speak of discrimination against Sunnis in the country at large, but the shop manager says that taxi drivers are beginning only to pick up passengers from their own religious affiliation; the city itself, he says, is beginning to fragment along doctrinal lines. The businessman is not sure he agrees.

I walk back the 100 yards to the hotel with the shop manager and bid him goodnight. The hotel rooms are all unlocked and empty, so I walk around the place and spy on the streets down below. In the middle of a city of hundreds of thousands of people, there’s not a sound. Occasionally a few white army pickup trucks zoom up, and the soldiers jump out and investigate a building.

I sit a while with the hotel manager in the bar area. We look out, and see what at first looks like a man carrying a gun ambling down the street. Then we realise it’s an old woman carrying a bag. “She must be mad,” he says.

We retire to bed. During the night there’s the odd crackle of gunfire, and a small explosion, but nothing else.

In the morning I go out walking again and pay another visit to the electronics showroom. I hand over some money for internet access, but it doesn’t work. “Oh, that happens a lot,” the man says. “They shut it down, usually for only a couple of hours at a stretch. And especially on Thursday – the day before prayers.”

I walk a bit further, and meet the shop manager again; we’re walking in the same direction, towards the clock tower, where all that remains of the April demonstration is a single graffito in Arabic.

“There were 70,000 people here,” he says, “and the police were doing this”: he mimics the act of shooting from a machine gun. I bid him goodbye, afraid that he might draw attention; a few hundred yards away, two soldiers with Kalashnikovs are guarding a government building.

After another cursory attempt to walk up and down the few roads open to me, pretending to be a shopper, I give up. As a foreigner, I stick out like a sore thumb; not wanting to be arrested and have my notes taken, I return to my hotel room and pace up and down until it’s time to leave. In a way, it’s what the residents of Homs have been doing for the last seven months, only in much more gruelling conditions.

I want to get out of this hothouse, as quickly and as efficiently as possible. The businessman is going to Damascus, and offers to take me with him. As we go, we pass through the central square, the scene of many attacks. Hardly anyone is around, not even many soldiers; both sides are preparing for what might happen tomorrow, after prayers.

Turrets made out of sandbags are built up on one side of the road, where soldiers have dug themselves in. As we drive, the businessman confides that he, too, plans to emigrate – only for a few years, until things have got better.

Most people here, however, can’t afford to leave, even if they wanted to. Before we got into the car I went back into the pâtisserie shop one last time to buy some cake. The manager had a glint in his eye, and he said goodbye with a welcome. “Welcome to Syria,” he said, smiling his enigmatic smile. “Welcome to Homs.”