Residents have begun returning to the once bustling but now devastated Syrian city of Homs, as the terms of a ceasefire have relinquished nearly all of its control to the government in exchange for rebels' safe passage out
The former residents of the Qarabis neighborhood in the Old City of Homs in Syria ought to be forgiven if they start questioning the value of peace. Three days after the successful conclusion of a ceasefire between the government of President Bashar Assad and the rebels who had holed up in the neighborhood for nearly two years, residents were allowed back into the sealed off enclave to salvage what they could from their former homes. It’s miraculous that there was anything left to reclaim. Hospitals and mid-rise apartment buildings in the city had pancaked under the barrage of the bombs dropped during the siege, spewing their contents into the streets below with the force of their fall. Their tar-lined roofs have become the city’s new sidewalks. A trickle of dazed residents walked over the street-level rooftops trying to make sense of their former homes, trailing baby strollers and bicycles packed with their rescued belongings. What was left standing had been chewed by mortar fire. The facades of some buildings had been sheared off, exposing dining rooms complete with wall paintings, chandeliers and mahogany tables.
Homs was once a bustling city, home to over a million Syrians. It is now in ruins, and hundreds of thousands of its residents have fled. A hundred miles north of Damascus, Homs has seen perhaps more violence in an extraordinarily violent war than any other part of Syria. Some of the earliest fighting of the war was here. Under the terms of the ceasefire it is now almost completely under government control. The rebels who once considered it a stronghold have left all but one neighborhood of Homs.
“Take a picture, take a picture!” a woman named Umm Hamed, 65, shouted at a pair of TIME journalists roaming the ruins. “See what this war has brought us.” She opened a tattered shopping bag stuffed with a red velvet cushion and brightly patterned curtains she had ripped from the windows of her old kitchen. Her daughter in-law clutched a blue vacuum cleaner. It was all that was left of a house that had been in her husband’s family for generations. Umm Hamed, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her family’s identity, had returned hoping to find at least a mattress or a sofa, as some of the other returning families had, but everything was either crushed under the weight of collapsed walls, or looted. Rebuilding, she said, was out of the question. “With what money?” She was wrapped in the black headscarf and loose cloak of conservative Sunni Muslims who tend to support the opposition, but said she wanted nothing to do with the rebels who claimed to fight for her freedoms. She was angry, she said, with those who launched the uprising, and the government that shelled her town in retaliation. “They were asking for freedom, and now we are asking for food,” she said.
What was once a vibrant middle class boulevard of dress shops, cafes and ice cream parlors has been reduced to dusty rubble. Even the Syrian flag draping listlessly from a military checkpoint is coated in dust. TIME’s photographer, Yuri Kozyrev, has covered wars for decades, including the brutal wars in Chechnya. He was amazed at the extent of the level of destruction he witnessed on Monday in Homs. “It’s worse than Grozny,” he said, as we walked through a post-apocalyptic landscape, broken teacups and eyeglasses crunching under our feet. Former residents trickled out of the side streets onto what was left of the boulevard to make their way home to whatever temporary accommodations they had arranged during the worst of the fighting. Mustapha, an engineer who would only give his first name, pushed an old bicycle laden with books in French, English and Arabic. His house, he said, had been looted. All that remained were his books, he said with scorn, as if he would have had more respect for the looters had they taken his treasured philosophy tracts and engineering tomes. Asked if he ever planned to return to the Old City to regain his life, he just shrugged at the destruction around him. “I am an old man, and an engineer. Return to what? I will be dead before this city can be rebuilt. This is the end of our history here.”
The ceasefire, like those conducted elsewhere in Syria, follows the government’s template for a possible way to conclude the war, which Assad says will happen by the end of the year. This is the government strategy, as it was used in Homs: a rebel-held area is encircled by government troops and bombed and starved into capitulation. Sometimes civilians are allowed to leave, but usually they are forced to suffer alongside the fighters. The Homs ceasefire, brokered by the U.N. and Iranian diplomats, came at the end of a nearly two-year siege. Fighters were allowed to leave with their weapons for rebel-held areas in the north, in exchange for the release of hostages and access to two pro-government towns near Aleppo that had been under siege by the rebels. The government controls all of Homs now, except for Waer, another rebel-held enclave about three miles from the Old City. On Monday, negotiations for a Waer ceasefire were underway, but seem to have broken down; we could hear mortar attacks and explosions coming from that direction throughout the afternoon.
Two middle age women, walking arm and arm for stability as much as for comfort down the Old City’s main street, had trouble holding back tears. They gave only their ages, 40 and 50, for fear of a government backlash for speaking their minds. The ceasefire in Homs was meaningless, the 40-year-old said. “This is not a peace. It is not even the beginning of peace, only the beginning of more destruction.” As she spoke, another explosion in Waer could be heard. “The rebels may have left Homs, but still the shelling goes on, and the bombing goes on.” Her companion, looking around her former neighborhood, sighed. “It’s sad to say that this is what Assad calls a victory, when the bombings were against his own people.”
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the name of a neighborhood in Homs. The correct spelling is Qarabis.