‘We looked for the food the rats were eating'
The first close-up portrait of life inside a Syrian city under siege -- only now possible because a ceasefire has been declared between government forces and rebels. Is there room for hope?
Abu Suleiman Abarra was in Homs, in the west of Syria, when the government besieged the city in February 2012. Soon around 100 civilians were dying each day. By June, trenches, barricades and checkpoints had trapped 3,000 civilians and 4,000 rebels in the city. Wheat and flour stocks ran short, food deliveries stopped and electricity supplies were cut.
‘We would go to houses that were ruined and destroyed and look under the rubble for food that rats and mice were feeding on,’ Abarra says. ‘After that, we started eating rotten food. One day I ground up plants to make bread.’
Now the people of Homs have respite from their country’s civil war. Rebels have accepted a ceasefire in al-Wair, the final suburb where they were fighting government forces. The deal, which is backed by the UN, has seen food aid delivered to al-Wair for the first time in a year. One local responded simply: ‘What do we want but safety?’
But it also means a city which was once dubbed the ‘capital of the revolution’ has now returned entirely to the Assad government’s control. Rebels who have accepted the ceasefire will remain in Homs but around 700 people, including civilians and fighters from groups such as al-Qaeda, were due to leave yesterday.
Homs — which was home to 1.5 million, mostly Sunni, residents before war broke out in 2011 — is now largely deserted. Only five of the 2,500 shops in the city’s ancient marketplace have reopened. Many buildings are in ruins, electricity is erratic and telephone lines have yet to be restored.
Across Syria, estimates suggest that more than 320,000 people have died since the war began. There are widespread shortages of water, food and fuel.
But the governor of Homs, Talal Barazzi, now says ‘I expect the reconciliation will be an introduction for similar agreements in Houleh, Rastan and Talbiseh’. Such moves could lead to progress in negotiations in Vienna, where international governments and the UN are trying to broker a ceasefire across Syria.
Slowly but surely?
The ceasefire has prompted hope that the Syrian people’s suffering may be coming to an end. Such a complex conflict will not be solved easily, but small steps can give grounds for optimism. Peace breeds peace — if an agreement can be reached in small areas, a solution can be found across the country.
Get real, respond pessimists: deals like this will not solve the intractable problems in Syria. This agreement gives the government control over people who mostly despise it; on the other side, several rebel groups are jihadist organisations who do not want peace. Ceasefires agreed by sworn enemies under pressure cannot hold: the armed groups in Syria have to stop wanting to kill each other.
- Would you now expect peace to last if you lived in Homs?
- Can a series of local ceasefires create peace in Syria?
- Write a letter to a person of your age who lives in Homs, asking them the questions you would like to know the answers to about their experiences there.
- Research a peace agreement from a war in history, and prepare a presentation covering the following: what issues needed solving, how were they resolved, and how durable was the final result?
Some People Say...
“Nothing is more important than peace.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Isn’t this just a very violent and sad local dispute?
- There are a lot of factors driving the Syrian civil war which are specific to Syria — the government, for example, which has killed tens of thousands of its own people. But many rebels have adopted causes which resonate around the world. Some are fighting for jihadist organisations; others just want the overthrow of their dictator.
- Does the UK’s military action affect Homs?
- Not directly at the moment. The UK voted last week to launch air strikes against Daesh in Syria, but the group is not currently in Homs. Most of its influence is in the east of Syria and over the border in Iraq. But it does pose a threat to Homs — it took control of the city of Maheen last month, which is just 13 miles from the road connecting Homs to Damascus.
- The ceasefire is similar to a deal which was reached in Homs’s Old City in May 2014. There, the government took control and agreed to allow 2,000 rebels safe passage out of the area. But fighting had largely destroyed the area already.
- Some have interpreted the deal as evidence that Russian backing has boosted Assad’s control.
- Sunni Muslims have been more likely to fight Assad than Shias; Assad’s Alawaite sect is Shia. About 10% of Homs’s pre-war inhabitants were Christians; 25% were Alawites.
- Nour Saad, a widow who has re-opened her shop, says she is ‘fighting to reopen the store on my own to encourage people to return’.
- 320,000 people
- This figure was published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in June 2015. It included at least 11,493 children. More than 1.5 million are believed to have been wounded.
- The key international actors in the talks are the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. They have significant disagreements, especially over the nature of Syria’s opposition, Assad’s future, how to destroy Daesh, and the Saudis’ rivalry with Iran.