x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Syrians in Homs see little evidence of UN ceasefire

Regardless of the peace plan, the makeshift hospital in a rebel-held area in the heart of Homs has kept up its brisk trade in the wounded and dying.

DAMASCUS // More than a week after a UN ceasefire went into effect and with a handful of UN observers now on the ground, violence in Syria continues, particularly in the city of Homs.

The UN peace plan brought a brief, early respite to the city - a 12-hour period in which there were fewer mortar bombs and shells fired - but it has been business as usual ever since.

Days after the ceasefire was officially to have come into force - at 6am on April 12 - drivers stopping for fuel and coffee at a busy motorway petrol station on the southern edge of Homs still flinched at regular loud bangs - splitting the air and rattling the windows - as the Syrian army fired its heavy guns.

And those shells or heavy mortar bombs have continued to land 8 kilometres up the road to the north.

The shells whistle overhead before crashing in on Homs's residential districts of Khalidiyeh, Jouret el Shayah and Qarabees, among others.

Regardless of the peace plan put forth by the UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan - and agreed by both the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, and opposition groups - the makeshift hospital in Khalidiyeh, a rebel-held area in the heart of Homs, has kept up its brisk trade in the wounded and dying. Its lone, overworked young doctor is still unable to save as many lives as he would like because of a shortage of basic medical supplies.

And corpses have continued to pile up in the barely refrigerated meat lockers at neighbourhood butcher shops, where they slowly rot until relatives can safely bury them out of sniper range.

Rebel fighters still sit behind crude, sandbagged fighting positions, Kalashnikov rifles in hand, listening to the artillery. A few kilometres away, their counterparts in the Syrian army wait at their own checkpoints, protected by tanks, stopping passing cars, listening to the outgoing fire aimed at their opponents.

The physical space dividing the two sides is an odd no-man's-land. The government-held territory, a largely deserted yet fairly clean cityscape, gives way to a rubbish- and rubble-strewn war zone, echoing with small arms fire and explosions, held by the rebels.

Much of the city remains empty, with aid workers saying hundreds of thousands of residents have fled for the relative safety of outlying rural areas or Damascus. The hotels in Palmyra, on the edge of Homs province, fully booked with tourists a few summers ago, are now heaving with Syrian refugees.

Those who have stayed behind in Homs city, including resolute civilians who refuse to leave their homes, laugh off talk of a ceasefire as an outrageous lie.

Ahmad Fawzi, Mr Annan's spokesman, yesterday described the ceasefire as "fragile". Khalidiyeh residents call it non-existent.

Yet they continue to hold out hope that UN monitors will, eventually, arrive and stay in these areas at the heart of the 13-month uprising.

"I want the UN monitors here, let them come and see with their own eyes that the regime has not stopped killing us," said a resident of Hamediyeh, an under-siege district of Homs mainly home to Christians. "We don't believe they will stop it, but let them at least see it and tell the world."

A Damascus-based activist, who met Kofi Annan last month when the former UN secretary general was in Syria to put the peace plan together, said Homs was desperate to see UN monitors.

"Khalidiyeh and other besieged neighbourhoods in Homs no longer ask for medical supplies or food or fuel. They just want the UN observers in," he said.

On Thursday the Syrian government and the UN agreed a protocol covering the terms and conditions for a peacekeeping force of some 250 monitors, in addition to an advance team of 30 that is expected to arrive by the end of next week. So far, seven UN monitors are in place in Syria.

Nonetheless, the Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots activists, say 205 civilians died between Monday and Thursday, scores of them in Homs.

Syrian state-run media has reported dozens of deaths among security units and civilians during the same period, blaming "armed terrorist groups" for breaking the ceasefire.

Yesterday officials said 13 security personnel were killed, 10 in a bombing in Deraa province.

Against such a backdrop, activists and analysts in Syria say the prospects of the UN team being able to halt more than a year of bloodshed are woefully slim.

"They are just begging for the UN observers to go to Homs. What worries me is that 30 or 300 observers is not enough," said the Damascus-based activist.

"We need 300 in Homs province alone," he said. "To cover the whole of the country and to see what is really going on will take at least 3,000 [UN monitors] and no one is talking about that kind of number.

"In reality, the UN is coming in to monitor a ceasefire that does not exist on the ground, and that it cannot enforce."