This guest post by ALIA ALLANA is a despatch for Kafila from Homs, Syria. All photos by Alia Allana
He was found shot in the chest, bleeding on the streets, alone.
He has no name. He’s just another struggling body in the hospital in Homs — only he’s much younger than most. He’s only four. He doesn’t move, his small frail body is gobbled by wires. The doctors say he hasn’t opened his eyes, hasn’t made a sound, nor has he called out for anyone. Saliva runs down his mouth but there is no one to wipe it off his face. This isn’t the first case and the doctors fear it won’t be the last. There will be other children who will take his place, there will be more victims of random shooting, more deaths and no one knows by whose gun.
On the streets of Homs there is no order. The sign leading into the city is covered by a palm tree. To the left of the sign is a wall and behind the wall are graves. The boundary of the graveyard has graffiti scribbled all over it. There is no method to this vandalism, there is no art here.
There is also no method to the madness in Homs. A sign supporting Bashar al Assad is trumped by a larger sign that would heckle the leader of Syria. Go away Bashar, it reads.
Al Ahli Hospital is off the main road in Homs. The army check points that the BBC spoke of, are scarce. The first one is at the mouth of a roundabout. On that roundabout is a statue of Hafez al Assad – the despotic former leader of Syria – and around his neck is a Syria flag that flutters in the wind. It almost looks like a cape giving the cagey media shy figure a super human feel. In Syria, the rulers want the people to think they are super heroes.
Posters lined the central street. Bashar stares down at you. His Baath Party style moustache gives his face a sinister feel. His eyes follow you like Mona Lisa’s: they stare down and watch from every corner. But the poster makers were no Leonardo Da Vinci’s, the posters are scattered all around the roundabout so that the watchful eye of leader follows.
Past the roundabout the road leads to the hospital. This is where the boy with no name lies. The doctor says he won’t make it. Oxygen is pumped into his lungs, his heartbeat is constant but he hasn’t opened his eyes. For this child the trauma of the bullet was too much according to Doctor Ibrahim. He’s been watching him all day.
The lights flicker in the corridor. There are many places that are in the dark because of frequent power cuts. There is no caretaker in Homs; there is no one to look after the Homsy’s.
We enter the town from the South-side. We’ve left the calm of Damascus to find a freakish, eerie silence in Homs. Some shops are open here. There are some for whom chaos and gunfire are good business and Ahmed is one of those. The streets are unlike any other city in Syria, they have garbage all over them. Yesterday’s rubbish, the week before’s paper and the city smells rancid. Plastic bags fly about and are lifted by the wind. The make little circles and drop only to be carried further ahead. It gets worse as the car edges closer to the sound of gunfire, closer to Beyada, the rebel stronghold. Rubbish bins are overflowing and it seems as though no one has bothered to come and clean the city. Cleaning the city would mean giving birth to life in this ghost town. Most likely the cleaners are indoors waiting for nightfall, waiting to get terrified by the sound of AK47s and RPGs.
Shutters are drawn, it looks like the whole town has moved elsewhere. There is no sign of life here but this is the part of town the army has secured. A tank rolls down the streets and behind it is a white car with its windows down. Six men are crammed in the car and the two by the back window, in plain clothes, hold out the AK47s. But there is no gunfire here, just silence, just a scary calm.
Homs has been divided into two cities. One part of Homs is asleep, too afraid to wake up, too afraid to find itself in this nightmare. The other part of Homs, past the Hafez Superman statue, is awake. A man is selling ice cream and another is making shawarmaa. The situation is at best, confusing.
To the left of the shawarmaa stand is Beyada; it is one of the localities that is under the control of the rebels. The rebels don’t have a formal name, nor are they a formal outfit according to residents. They are the Musalahin, the men with guns, men who have come out to terrorise the city and taunt the regime. It is they who the government is fighting and is unable to control. The official line says they are paid thugs, men on the bank roll of Lebanon and Saad Hariri, Saudi Arabia and Prince Bandar bin Sultan and the United States of America, but there is no evidence to support the claim.
The doctor at the hospital thinks Israel has a role to play and she knows who to blame when she leaves her house terrified. She doesn’t want to come out on the streets when she hears the sound of live gunfire. She’d rather hide indoors. A stray bullet doesn’t choose its target and she could be a victim, she fears. It’s duty, the service to others that brings her out of the house. The hospital is small and has only three floors. Standing at the entrance and by the elevators are military men with bulletproof vests and AK47s. It’s ironic that the gun that is used to kill is also the gun that is used to protect. The doctor has seen too much, she has treated too many patients and the numbers of victims is not on the decrease.
Most of those who have been shot have been targeted at close range. Most wounds are on the neck and on the head. Many don’t make it. Today there are three cases of near fatality on the third floor. But the number will increase as the night starts to set in, she says.
She doesn’t have time to play the blame game, she doesn’t have the energy to stay awake but she does. She has pulled out bullets that have exploded in the body, bullets that have been made illegal by the Geneva Convention but in this lawless slither of land there is no respect for conventions. Israel continues to make those and she is certain of this. As yet there is no verifiable proof but she knows that the bullet exploded after it entered the body. That’s proof enough for her.
Out on the streets, shops are open but this area too was like Beyada a few weeks ago. Children and women walk around despite the sounds of gunfire because the shattering sound has become commonplace for a city that has been under siege for the past seven months. Life goes on, says the mother. She doesn’t feel the need to lock her daughter indoors because she knows calm will be restored.
The army is here and the army was invited in by the people.
The people on the streets run inside and rush out with posters larger than themselves. Two men prop up an image of Bashar, they are ever ready and prepared to show their allegiance. The government still enjoys considerable support in Homs.
The office of the governor is lit and its large door is illuminated by orange light. It looks like a palace and it is called the governor’s palace. Marble steps lead up to the central room and inside, six chandeliers are a marked contrast from the cold white tube light in most houses. The governor must like gold because the mahogany is polished with a gold tint.
He too knows who to blame. Of course the government lost control here and is fighting to restore law and order but the weapons the thugs carry in their hands have come from outside. His men have caught lorries carrying guns from Lebanon. It’s a US, Arab (Lebanon, Saudi, Qatar), Turkish plot. It is because the Syrians have never bowed down to foreign power, it is because they continue to maintain their non-recognition policy to Israel that has brought this situation to the streets he’s meant to be in charge of. But all of the 128 that have been captured and now languish in the jail are Syrians.
“No one knows what is happening here,” he says. He looks perplexed. These men that were caught were wanted for other offences, he explains as we drink orange juice from crystal glasses. They have been armed by outside powers but soon order will be restored, soon the deaths will stop. He is hopeful but he has no answers.
The international media makes references to the shabiha, ghosts that are terrorizing the street. Shabiha is an old Arab word used for men who used to drive fast cars in the 1970s and 80s. They would just whizz by and that is who the international media says is perpetrating the attacks. But how do you distinguish between two Syrians – one against the state and one with – when both are of the same color and carry the same gun.
This is a snippet of what I saw in Homs. I read that 29 had been killed on that very day.
(Alia Allana is our lady of Arab Spring. This is the first of a series of despatches on Kafila.)
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