Deep beneath the city of Homs, in the last days of the Syrian army’s siege, a desperate Islamist rebel wrote on the wall of a tunnel. “I have a question for all our commanders,” he lamented.
“When will the road be open? If someone has an answer, please give me one. And tell me when the siege will be lifted. If no one answers, this means that all our commanders are…” The final word is obscured. Liars? Bastards?
But the lonely gunman’s suspicions were correct. The last rebels surrendered – to be given safe passage from Homs under the eyes of the UN – and left behind a city destroyed, its ancient streets pulverized, its shops crushed beneath tons of masonry, its 7th-century Mosque of Khalid ibn al-Walid blasted by shellfire and bullets.
Even the grave of ibn al-Walid himself, a Companion of the Prophet Mohamed no less, lies amid rubble in one corner of the mosque, a green and gold cloth over his last resting place, the corners held down by breeze blocks. Rumour has it that the Wahabi Islamists who fought here stole his body long before they left.
Now today – at last – the full extent of Homs’ martyrdom can be seen, street after noble street shattered by bombs, tank-fire, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rounds, stately Ottoman offices gutted by flames, Roman columns tossed into gardens of shell-shorn tree trucks. The great modern shops and city-centre offices are reduced to rubble-filled skeletons. Tunnels run beneath many of the roads and, for the first time, visitors can clamber through the snipers’ alleys which bisected the city for two years.
One tunnel beneath a wrecked department store was ground out through hard rock almost two years ago, built – as the proud amateur engineers inscribed in paint beside their tunnel entrance – by a group of Islamist fighters. “This tunnel was dug by the hands of jihadis, Abu Bashir, Abu Odai, Abu Aleil, Abu Iskander, 15 July 2012,” it says. The tunnel is only four feet high. I crawled its length, beneath gas pipes and alongside drains, and emerged in the centre of a main highway beside the ancient mosque to find myself in a sand-bagged sniper’s position.
The front lines between Syrian and rebel forces are still in place, concrete barrels and barbed wire and sofas and steel-framed chairs across blackened streets drenched in broken water mains and sewage – a panorama familiar to anyone who witnessed the years of civil war in central Beirut or parts of Baghdad.
Government soldiers now laze in the sun at makeshift checkpoints where tens of thousands of peaceful civilian demonstrators gathered in the early days of the rebellion in 2011 – joined on one tumultuous day by the American and French ambassadors – to demand the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Then the armed defenders of Homs arrived, to be replaced by the jihadis and the al-Qa’ida men and the Nusra fighters, who struggled for years against an army which had earlier shot down unarmed demonstrators. From that moment, Homs was doomed.
It is the silence which emphasises the city’s fate. Scarcely a breath of wind moves the giant hoardings of Assad that now hang in triumph down the front of the destroyed facades of shops and factories.
In the sky, hundreds of swifts dart across the dead city and its roofless buildings, a symbol of an almost heavenly life amid the disgrace of these ruins. We wandered this place for hours, past the little places of humanity that make up any living society, a broken pharmacy, a doctor’s surgery, a dress shop with the inevitable dummies long congealed into the street rubble in the streets, the remains of a cheap hotel – the “Forgiveness Hotel”, a wardrobe store and a shoe shop whose boxes – along with hundreds of shoes – lay mouldering in the gutters.
It was a unique moment, too, because already government trucks were removing the tens of thousands of tons of concrete and stone from the city, and in months – perhaps weeks – this place may be a wasteland, ready for post-war reconstruction (with billions of Qatari cash?), its recent tragedy as erased as the centre of Hama after its Islamist rebels rose up in savage rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, in February 1982.
You could save many of the older buildings of Homs. The fluted columns, the old clocks, the arched windows of Ottoman rule and French mandate do not have to be turned to rubble just because their roofs have been flung into the streets.
And then there is the Mosque of Khalid ibn al-Walid, which dates from the 7th century. Its walls are scarred with bullets and shell fragments, its fountain is twisted into a Daliesque art form, part of its exterior is sandbagged and its interior is carved out by shrapnel and smeared with graffiti. Renovated it must be – and can be – but its desecration is a disgrace. There is no way, in Homs, to apportion blame for this architectural disaster.
Both Syrians and Islamists held the mosque at different times. The Islamists used it as a redoubt, just as their comrades – or perhaps they themselves – did amid the ruins of Fallujah in Iraq’s “city of a thousand minarets” when the Americans besieged that city.
Some tall buildings have been sliced in half by air attacks – clearly by the Syrian air force – others, including the city’s French-built museum, have been spotted by a plague of rifle rounds and rocket-propelled grenades that must have come from rebel-held lines.
Around the city, middle-class apartments and villas stand untouched close to the university of Homs, but the streets deteriorate into fire-burned walls the nearer one reaches the suburb of Bab al-Amr, a place of great death and suffering under Syria’s ruthless bombardment.
Oddly, as the summer heat builds up across the plain of Homs, there is no smell of decay, no hint of the thousands of deaths which were inflicted here. There must be bodies aplenty under the cascade of concrete walls sandwiched on top of each other in the old city. But most of the dead were buried after battle or during those cruel semi-ceasefires which marked the great siege of Homs.
I found an interior ministry fighter in Omar bin al-Khattab Street, wearing – and he was no patsy left for journalists to find, since I came across him at a checkpoint hidden by rubble – a miniature double-edged sword of Shiite Islam around his neck and a wristband depicting the heads of Christian saints. I asked “Khaled” what he thought when he gazed upon the destruction of Homs.
“I feel as if a brother has lost his life,” he said. “All the victims are our brothers. All this blood is our brothers’ blood. I am young, but the defence of your country doesn’t wait until you get old.” He laughed. There was no patriotic talk of the Baath party, no reference to President Bashar al-Assad.
The only words from the Islamist fighters – apart from the tunnel literature – were spray painted on the walls. “There is a mine in the next alley,” a Nusra man had obligingly written at a street corner. Another ominously inscribed the words: “When the night comes, the killing begins.”
A Christian Syrian asked me why men wrote such words. Behind him, in a roofless Orthodox church, was the bust of a cleric. There were bullet holes in his face and shoulders. Potshots? Target practice? Or another shameful sign of Homs’ wartime degradation?
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