Intrepid Journey to Syrian City of Fear

A brave young resident helps a journalist get into perilous Homs

“Is it true that you hate us Muslims? We just want to live in peace!”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Tags:  Syria, Homs, oppression, repression, James Harkin, brave journalists and reporters


James Harkin is one of the few non-Syrians to get into Homs, the epicentre of the Syrian uprising, and has witnessed the terror and the violence of the military lockdown

IT IS an abrupt twist to a conversation as I settle into my seat on the bus from Damascus to Homs: an 18-year-old man tells me in no uncertain terms to get off, to leave the bus.

We’ve known each other just five minutes, Mohammed and I, after he introduced himself while we were loading our luggage into the hold of the bus. I’d invited him to sit beside me at the back. With his shock of curly black hair zipped up in the hood of a stripy cardigan, he looked like the lead singer of a retro boy band.

“But why? Why do you want to go to Homs?” he asks again and again. Oh, I don’t know, I say: I’m touring around. This spooks Mohammed, as well it should: Homs, in recent weeks, has become a place of immense peril, the epicentre of an increasingly violent uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

I don’t want to tell Mohammed I’m a journalist. Journalists are, as a general rule, barred from entering Syria, and definitely not allowed to wander around unsupervised.

“Tourists in Homs? There are none,” he says. He looks at me quizzically for a few moments, as if he’s trying to get the measure of me: what kind of Western tourist would be so idiotic as to park himself on the bus to Homs? And then, just as the bus revs its engines, his tone becomes more urgent.

“I fear for you, I want you to get off the bus. Get off.” It’s as if he’s only just realised that I must be mad — or a journalist. People are beginning to stare. Almost everyone else on the bus is an old man; maybe young men know better than to take the bus to Homs. The bus pulls away and I shrug my shoulders, but Mohammed is deadly serious. “You can still get off. Get off now.”

For the next two hours we talk. Perhaps it’s because I’m a foreigner, Mohammed is mighty voluble. He’s an engineering student from Homs, but since the antigovernment demonstrations began, he hasn’t been able to attend college in the city. Homs, where he lives, is home to just over a million people, right in the heartland of Syria.

Homs is where Syrians go to flee the bustle of Damascus and relax in its cafes and restaurants and to watch soccer (Homs boasts two popular teams, Al-Karamah and Al-Wathba). Not anymore: since March, when its people rose up to protest against economic injustice and demand more political freedom, and its armed forces replied with guns and repression, the city has been under a fierce siege.

Most of the city is under total military lockdown, Mohammed tells me. No one can go out; everyone stays at home. “There are tanks in the streets where I live. You can’t really walk around; it’s dangerous.”

His father is a headmaster in a local school, but even he hasn’t been able to go out to work. Everyone knows someone who’s been killed or injured in his area.

“Yesterday, my sister saw a body in the street, and she’s been crying ever since.” Does he mean perilous districts such as Baba Amr, I ask, places from where gruesome but unverified clips of bombed buildings and dead bodies have been turning up on YouTube? Mohammed becomes insistent, frustrated with his inability to get the message across: “No, not just there. It’s everywhere. You will see.”

I did see — and hear. Later that day, in Homs, I chatted with the manager of a pastry shop who, when he was sure he was out of the earshot of others, told me he believed as many as 5,000 people had been killed in the city in the last six months.

There, chillingly, he played out the act of firing a machine gun into imaginary crowds. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Since the demonstrators were ejected from the main square, the battles between them, the army and unknown armed groups have fanned out into different areas within the city limits. Some residents of Homs have taken up arms, either to defend themselves and their communities against the army and the police, or to go on the attack. Amid reports of growing sectarian tension between Sunnis and Alawites, an unorthodox branch of Shiites, the conflict has grown more shadowy and difficult to fathom. The only thing people know for sure is that more bodies are found on the streets every day.

The living stay at home. Everyone sits tight and waits. Many homes in the city are without gas, electricity or hot water. Even in the city centre, where I stay, there is no hot water to be found. In the morning, people walk around, as if stretching their legs after their hours of being cooped up indoors. But the claustrophobia, the feeling of everyone watching and being watched, is intense.

Whenever I venture outside — everyone cautions against it — I feel like every Syrian is staring at me. There’s shooting, I’m told, in an area just a few hundred yards away from the hotel where I’m staying. Demonstrations still take place in areas of the city, often after a funeral or after Friday prayers.

In a cafe, I see two waiters racing to a window and leaning out of it excitedly; one of them thought he could hear chanting going on in a different part of the city. I follow them to the window but strain to hear anything. In the early afternoon, even the centre of the city begins to shut down. By early evening, an informal curfew is in place and an unnatural quiet descends on the entire city.

Mohammed has been luckier than most. For the last few weeks he has been shuttling back and forth between Homs and Damascus for a part-time work placement, and now he is returning home. The roles between the two cities have been reversed; now it’s the hectic pace of Damascus that is a breath of fresh air from the eerie watchfulness of Homs.

All the same, Mohammed misses his family; he has nine brothers and sisters, all of them living in and around Homs. Occasionally his mobile phone goes off, and he speaks to one of them to hear their news and tell them he’s safe and on his way back home. Like most people in Homs, and like a great majority of the Syrian population, his family is Sunni. Many of the current protesters are Sunnis who believe they’ve been discriminated against under the Alawite regime — that President Assad has doled out jobs and influence to Alawites like himself.

In return, the government is claiming that the protests are being masterminded by Sunni extremists, stoked by Syria’s ill-wishers in Saudi Arabia and even inspired by Al-Qaeda. Mohammed doesn’t want to discuss religious divisions within his own country. He’s keener to know about the West.

“Is it true that you hate us Muslims? We just want to live in peace.” For the most part, however, the tone is playful, curious. “Are you married?” he wants to know, asking a question that no Arab male fails to ask of a Westerner, man or woman. No, I say. “Why not?” he wants to know. I ask him the same question, and he says with a giggle that he doesn’t even have a girlfriend. That’s something for the future, he says — something else, besides a better country, for a young Syrian to hope for.

Rewind to the bus ride, Damascus to Homs. Our conversation is becoming animated, and an old man in a headdress sitting beside us opens an eye from his half-sleep, wondering what we could be talking about in my English and his, which is half-garbled but still intelligible. These are Mohammed’s townspeople, and he seems relaxed around them.

There’s the occasional huge gun mounted on a lorry, a tank beached beside of the road. Mohammed keeps nudging me to look at it all. Neither of us speaks, but he fixes me a stare as if to say, “I was right, wasn’t I? You should have left the bus.”

My companion has become my lookout, counting down at regular intervals how many kilometres it is until our arrival at the bus station just outside Homs. It is just after midday. The only safe place, he tells me as we near Homs, is now the city centre itself. Together we devise a plan. He’s going to write down the name of a hotel there and then I’m going to show it to the taxi driver, go there directly, and not go out again until I leave.

On arrival, we spend 15 minutes walking around searching for the entrance to the hotel, looking, all the while, utterly conspicuous. We find what used to be the entrance, but it is shut, as if permanently. Together we find a side entrance down an alley, and what looks like a private, disused elevator that will take us up to the hotel.

On the way up to the sixth floor we exchange telephone numbers, and he tells me to call him if I need anything while I’m in Homs. I thank him profusely and implore him to stay in touch, that he must let me know if there’s anything I can do to help when I’m back in London.

The following day, as my fears of arrest grow, I’ll delete his name and number from my phone, just in case the police want to know how I got in and who I’ve been talking to. In any case, he doesn’t seem very interested in polite offers of assistance from random foreigners. It’s only later that I realise just what a help he’s been.

The anonymous business hotel he’s brought me to makes perfect cover for a visiting journalist. Never get a taxi on your own, someone advises me; if the driver is friendly with the authorities there’s a good chance he’ll take you straight to the police station and you’ll be deported, possibly after being roughed up. Two days after I leave, a Syrian news cameraman was found dead on the main street, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. He was found with his eyes gouged out.

In the hotel lobby, I offer Mohammed some money but he is not having any of it. He’s changed his mind about going home; one of the telephone calls he took was from home, he says, and they’ve told him it’s too dangerous to go back there. He’s going to stay with his sister, who lives in a safer part of town.

One final embrace and Mohammed is gone, back into his world of grim menace, leaving me in the hands of a hotel manager who turns out to be just as gently solicitous as Mohammed was.

* James Harkin is a journalist based in London. (c) 2011 Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC. All rights reserved.
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“Power is worth nothing, while you stand as an enemy to the people.”

“You can cut down the flower, but nothing can stop the coming of the spring.”

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Robert Francis Kennedy quotes ( U.S. attorney general and adviser, 1925-1968)