No exit from Homs
The siege of Homs has entered its fifth month, with nearly 1,000 families now being stranded in the devastated city
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Members of the Free Syrian Army pray at the fresh graves of their fellow comrades, killed during clashes with Bashar's forces in Aleppo
An entire year has passed since Syrian military and security forces raided the city of Homs in central Syria, and four months have gone by since a siege began by military forces of this city abandoned by most of its residents, reports Bassel Oudat.
Today, the Syrian military's heavy artillery continues to pound the city, turning it into a ghost town and a battleground between two unequal parties.
For one year or so, military forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have bombed Homs on a daily basis, leveling many neighbourhoods and destroying thousands of buildings as they attempt to bring the "capital of the revolution" as Syrians call it under their control.
The Syrian authorities and military leadership have announced the "liberation" of Homs several times, and every two months they claim to have put an end to the "armed terrorist gangs" in the city.
However, residents say that the city remains unconquered by regime forces despite the destruction and the daily attacks by planes, field artillery and rocket-launchers. The revolutionaries still control around 75 per cent of the city in districts where the majority opposes the regime, while the regime controls 25 per cent of the city dominated by regime-supporting Alawites.
More than 1,000 families are still living in Homs protected by an unknown number of Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces. These families live in bunkers that are constantly being bombarded, and their children suffer from severe psychological trauma amid shortages of all supplies.
Hadi Abdallah, an activist in the opposition who has not left Homs since the uprising began, said that more than 1,000 families were under siege in the city, including 450 people who were critically wounded and untreated because the only field hospital had been destroyed by the army.
"The siege is continuing after 125 days," Abdallah told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It is a stranglehold focused on the old quarters of Homs like Bab Hud, Bab Al-Doreib, Al-Hamidya, Bab Al-Sibaa, Al-Khalidiya and Al-Karabees."
"There are around 1,100 families in these districts who need basic supplies like bread because the regime has blocked the entry of flour and deliberately rerouted deliveries to certain bakeries. Most families only eat once a day, and around 170 people are suffering from severe fatigue because of malnutrition, mostly children and the elderly."
"The single field hospital was shut down in the old quarter because the medicine ran out and the equipment was destroyed. The wounded are all potential martyrs. There are 450 wounded people, and because of the lack of medicine the doctors were forced to amputate the limbs of 14 patients."
Local activists and international and UN groups have accused the regime's security forces of committing massacres in Homs that have killed hundreds of people, raising the number of civilian victims to figures that are much higher than those in other Syrian cities.
So far, more than 7,000 people have been killed in Homs during the uprising, according to some estimates, while local and international agencies view the situation as a "disaster zone."
Local residents are living in miserable conditions after the authorities cut off water, power, fuel and communications, and transportation is difficult because hundreds of snipers lie in wait on rooftops surrounding various neighbourhoods.
In February this year, the Syrian regime rejected demands by the international community to create safe corridors in Syria to evacuate the victims of the uprising, including wounded Western journalists.
In the same month, the security forces executed seven activists arrested while trying to smuggle medicine and a respirator to a field hospital in Homs. Several other activists in neighbouring towns were also killed while attempting to deliver food to the districts under siege.
The Syrian regime has been using various excuses to avoid implementing a ceasefire that would allow the secure passage of civilians, the wounded and humanitarian aid, and it has demanded that anyone carrying weapons must first surrender his arms and himself.
The revolutionaries have refused to oblige because they believe the Syrian army will kill every single person in the city if they are not there to protect them.
Explaining why the city, its suburbs and the surrounding towns are still being bombarded, Abdallah said that "the regime views Homs as the spearhead of the revolution, and it has been using excessive force there because Homs is the 'capital of the revolution'. It has been doing the same thing in Deraa, the 'cradle of the revolution'."
"The authorities have said three times that they have concluded the fighting in Homs and 'cleansed' it of combatants, but in reality they have failed. Therefore, they are seeking revenge on its residents by using all types of weapons against them," Abdallah said.
Homs is Syria's largest governorate in terms of territory, and it borders both Iraq and Lebanon, making it fertile ground for smuggling and storing illegal weapons. The city is also unlike any other in Syria, not only because it is a hotbed for anti-regime protests, but also because 75 per cent of its residents are Sunnis who oppose the minority Alawite-led regime of President Al-Assad.
Some 20 per cent of the city's population is Alawite, mostly supporting the regime, together with a Christian minority of five per cent. The Alawite minority migrated from rural areas to the city over the past three decades, and it profited from the help and cover of the security forces.
Observers believe that the situation in the city could break out into sectarian war between the different groups as a result. "The regime is bombing Homs neighbourhoods using tanks and rocket-launchers positioned in pro-regime neighbourhoods," explained Abdallah. "But the courage of the FSA fighters will prevent regime forces from entering Homs."
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has demanded a truce in the city several times so it can evacuate the wounded and sick civilians, including hundreds of women and children. The regime has claimed that it has allowed the ICRC to work in the city, but that this work has been impeded by opposition fighters.
In response, a spokesman for the General Committee for the Syrian Revolution in Homs told the Weekly that the regime had blocked ICRC missions from doing their work and that the armed brigades were willing to uphold a ceasefire to evacuate the wounded and families from the city.
"FSA officers promised the ICRC not to fire a single shot when they were working, even if there was an attempt to raid the city," the spokesman, who preferred to remain anonymous, said. "They told us that the regime had promised them the same thing, but when they tried to enter the authorities stopped them and attacks on residential areas continued."
"They failed to enter three times, even though the residents had come out to the outskirts of the town to meet them and had returned disappointed," he said in an account confirmed by several Syrian human rights monitors.
Abdallah described as "lies" the idea that "armed militias" were preventing aid from coming into the city. "What the regime calls 'armed militias' are in fact the FSA, and since the FSA called for humanitarian relief to enter how could it be blocking aid from coming in?"
"FSA fighters risk their lives every day to secure the needs of civilians in terms of food and medicine, and the regime has no other excuse to justify killing Syrians through this slow death of putting them under siege except by accusing the other side. We even demanded the evacuation of just women and children, but the regime refused."
"The people of Homs are shocked that the international community has shown itself to be unable to lift the siege and they have started to lose hope. Has humanity died? What happened to the champions of human rights?"
Syrian activists and opposition figures assert that though the city has been reduced to rubble, raids by military forces would not mean that the city would fall to the regime. Neither would they lead the revolutionaries to abandon it, especially since the majority of them are from the city and are defending the land of their fathers and forefathers before them.
The people of Homs, whose homes are now piles of rubble, still go out in daily protests condemning the regime and demanding its ouster. They have not yet abandoned peaceful protest, and they continue to demand that what has happened in Homs should not be allowed to distract the revolution from its goal.