Of Mice and Men in Homs: Tales from an empty city
A man assists an elderly lady to walks amid garbage during the evacuation of civilians from besieged parts of the Syrian city of Homs on February 19, 2014. (AFP)
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The car enters al-Arrab Street near al-Dablan and other flashpoint neighborhoods in the Syrian city of Homs. The street is a reminder of its former cheerful days, when it was the site of art exhibits and cultural events.
Reaching the temporary lodgings of the people who left Old Homs is not an easy feat. An army checkpoint awaits you, with a soldier wanting to know where you are heading and the reason for your visit. The elegant buildings in al-Arrab do not have bullet and shell marks. Its residents left after the initial clashes in al-Dablan, but they quickly returned; this makes the neighborhood stand out in comparison to nearby neighborhoods that have been abandoned.
Al-Andalus School, which the government turned into a shelter for refugees, is across the street from the Education Directorate. It houses about 340 civilians who left old Homs, paving the way for the exit of some men with their families. People who have nowhere to stay under the auspices of the state will remain in the old building.
The front of the building shows signs of old clashes, and there are policemen at its entrance to inspect IDs and conduct searches. In the school’s playground, children play soccer. Clergymen leave the center. They visit the families all the time. One sounds confident that the rest will be out soon. A woman standing nearby whispers: “They’re never going to come out. They boobytrapped the tunnels, and the road is full of snipers.”
Dr. Abdel-Qader Zubair had only two months left to finish his residency at al-Walid Hospital located in the Waer neighborhood, but he ended up in a field hospital after he was kidnapped from the hospital. Zubair has tried to return to his family.
“We were caught between a rock and a hard place. We were afraid of the militants inside, but we didn’t dare flee because we were afraid of how the security forces and the army was going to treat us. Were they going to treat us as if we were fighters?” he said.
Khaled al-Masry is an anesthesiologist. He was kidnapped from al-Bir Hospital in the Waer neighborhood to work at a field hospital in Jouret al-Shayah. The doctors there had no choice but to accept the situation. Leaving the hospital was forbidden. Masry said he and a friend escaped by helping to carry aid packages that were brought in. “We met the United Nations representative and gave him an idea about our situation. So he took us out in his car right away. We underwent a routine investigation then left,” he said.
Baraa and her neighbors the rebels
According to the people leaving Old Homs, the fighters address each other by aliases and titles. The name Abu al-Harith comes up a lot, which suggests he controls a number of fighters inside.
Baraa, 8, is full of tales: “They don’t know how to shoot because they haven’t done their military service. They would come and ask daddy how to put the bullets because daddy has done his military service and knows how to shoot, but he doesn’t carry a gun because he worries about us.”
She added: “They hid among us when we were leaving and they carried me and my sister Jana so the army would think they are families.”
Female volunteers from the Shabab al-Kheir Association in charge of the relief center cleaned up the little girls and gave them food. Tragedy befell the family before the father decided to take out Baraa and her three sisters, the youngest no older than three. They had lost their mother and an infant boy in an explosion seven months ago. The father, with his daughters, carried the mother’s remains to bury her. The girls talk about her as if she has vanished. They do not cry; hunger keeps them preoccupied.
Baraa said, “The rebels were our neighbors. We used to gather wood and cut it and put it in a barrel so they could feel warm.” The rebels, according to Baraa, would use the wood from doors of houses and bring them to the girls to break using large stones. They were used to carrying large stones and doing what those guys asked them.
“‘Tell your daughters we want tea, tell your daughters we want firewood,’” Baraa repeated what they used to tell her father. “‘Veil your daughters, we’re Muslim, have her wear a coat and cover her face.’”
“He wanted to buy my three-year-old sister Jana. He told father, I will pay as much as you want for her. He also told him, I will take your daughters and raise them if you can’t feed them.”
We ate the cats so the mice multiplied
The fighters, according to the civilians who left, have adapted to not having power by relying on electric generators that work four hours a day. The civilians, on the other hand, have forgotten what electricity means. They retrieve soiled water from an old well and spend much time filtering it before it’s potable.
Fraiha, 12, said, “We had to eat [cats] out of hunger, but [the fighters] had some food left from the aid. They were able to break into homes and steal food supplies. They would search people’s homes and steal the food after putting a gun to the homeowner’s head.” Baraa interrupted, “We ate so many cats. Our houses were filled with big mice.” The girl’s neutral, expressionless face was unfathomable. Fraiha continued, “The meat was not good. It tasted bitter.”
Fraiha described how some tried to flee, but the fighters beheaded four of them. Another who tried to escape was whipped in the street.
Price of a bird
Omar, 15, sits by the school’s fence. He is happy. He is carrying cigarettes in all his pockets. Here, he can smoke as much as he wants. He explained the situation inside: “The price of a bird is 10,000 Syrian pounds ($70) even though it is eaten. But the price of a kilo of Arabic cigarettes is 3 million pounds ($20,877). But does anyone have 3 million pounds?” Answering his own question, he said, “All those inside have millions, but there are no goods to buy. … They stole everything, the market, jewelry and clothes stores.”
Two other guys sit alone. Mohammed, 20, said he carried arms for a week so he could get rations. “They killed my friend under the pretext that he collaborated with the Syrian army. That is why I stopped carrying arms,” he said. “I started working with them like most people whom they used for logistical work, such as digging tunnels, serving them, and a lot of other hard work that they forced people to do.”
By Marah Mashi