Syrian residents return to Homs to find homes in ruins
HOMS, SYRIA // The last Syrian rebels left Homs’ Old City on Friday under an evacuation deal that hands the government a symbolic victory, as civilians began trickling back in to find neighbourhoods in rubble.
The pullout from the Old City leaves the rebels confined to a single district on the outskirts of the central city, once “the capital of the revolution” against President Bashar Al Assad.
As troops moved in to clear the Old City of explosives, hundreds of civilians began returning to see what remained of their homes in a Christian district within the area that has been under nearly daily bombardment during a two-year siege by Mr Al Assad’s forces.
Many were shocked, with tears in their eyes, as they climbed over debris to inspect the ruins.
“I came to check on my house, but I couldn’t find it. I didn’t find a roof, I didn’t find walls. I only found this coffee cup, which I will take with me as a souvenir,” said a 45-year-old who returned with her husband.
Imad Nanaa, 52, was more fortunate. He returned to check on his home for the first time in almost three years, and miraculously, he found it almost intact.
Speaking nervously and hurriedly because he wanted to leave the area as quickly as possible, Mr Nanaa said he was looking forward to return with his family as soon as the army allowed it.
“This deal has saved us from more blood and destruction,” he said of a deal that allowed the safe passage of more than 2,000 people, mainly rebels, out of the Old City.
People returning had to hand over their IDs to the troops upon entering the formerly rebel-held districts. The soldiers then returned the papers as the people filed out later.
One man walked out with a guitar under his arm. A woman emerged from her home carrying a stack of photo albums.
“I have nothing left for me to remember so I brought these photos,” Fadia Al Ahmar, said. “My house was destroyed.”
The staggering scale of destruction in the area spoke to the ferocity of the fighting.
City blocks were pounded into an apocalyptic vista of grey, hallow facades of blown-out buildings. The charred, crumpled carcasses of cars provided an occasional figure on streets strewn with rebar and shattered concrete bricks.
In the Maljaa neighbourhood, every building was damaged, even cars that were parked inside. An eight-story building was flattened into a pile of rubble. Shop fronts were pancaked. Walls of apartment blocs were blasted with holes from artillery and tank shells.
The final convoy of rebels withdrew after a day-long delay blamed on fighters in northern Syria blocking an aid convoy destined for two pro-regime towns besieged by opposition fighters in Aleppo province.
The aid delivery was also part of the deal.
The Homs governor Talal Al Barazi said “we have completed the evacuation of armed men from the Old City of Homs”, referring to the withdrawal, which began on Wednesday.
At least 1,630 people, mostly rebels, had already left under the landmark deal, which also saw opposition fighters elsewhere in the war-torn country release dozens of women, children and soldiers taken hostage months earlier.
But seven buses carrying the last 250 rebels were stopped on Thursday because Islamist fighters not involved in the deal blocked the pledged flow of food supplies into the Shiite towns of Nubol and Zahraa in Aleppo province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The last rebels were finally allowed to leave on Friday, as the aid convoys arrived in Zahraa, said the Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
This was not the first deal between the government and the rebels, as a number of ceasefires have been agreed on the outskirts of Damascus.
But it was the first time that rebel fighters have withdrawn from an area they controlled after an accord.
It was also the first time Syria’s rebels and security agencies sign a deal after negotiations supervised by the ambassador of key Damascus ally Iran.
The government allowed the remaining rebels in Homs to pull out with their personal weapons in return for the release of 40 Alawite women and children, an Iranian woman and 30 soldiers held hostage by rebels elsewhere in Syria.
The Observatory said all the hostages had been released by Thursday afternoon.
Abu Wissam, a rebel fighter being evacuated from the city centre, bemoaned the outside interests now at play in a conflict that began as an Arab Spring-inspired protest movement.
“Now, everyone is moved like pawns in a chess game” between regional and international powers, he said.
There have been many sieges imposed by both sides in the three-year-old conflict but that of the Old City of Homs has been by the far longest.
Some 2,200 people were killed as near daily bombardment reduced the area to ruins.
The rebel pullout comes less than a month before a controversial presidential election, described as a farce by Western governments and the opposition, that is expected to return Assad to office.
* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Associated Press
Updated: May 9, 2014 04:00 AM