Homs: inside the city at the heart of Syria’s rebellion

James Harkin reports: On Thursday morning, I woke up in Homs, the city labelled by the international media as the “capital of the Syrian revolution”.

Homs has been in more or less open revolt since at least April, but in recent weeks what is going on here has acquired ominous new significance. Facing the full force of a crackdown on their demonstrations by the Syrian army and police, at least some of the city’s residents have taken up arms, either to defend themselves and their communities or to go on the attack.

Outside Syria and in the international media, the siege has become a cause célèbre. But events here show not only the courage and the forbearance of its citizens, but also the traps that lie in wait for an unhappy people suppressed by a brutal military crackdown.

I was lucky to get here. It’s not quite true that all foreign journalists are banned from Syria, but it was extremely difficult to get in, even before the uprising, and those who succeed are carefully shepherded around. It took me two journeys back and forth from Beirut even to get across the border into Damascus.

After a few days there, I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to Homs. A policeman was on hand to check foreign passports, but fortunately he didn’t bother to check mine carefully – it clearly indicates, by means of a Syrian government stamp, that I am a journalist.

My second stroke of luck was to have been befriended by an 18-year-old boy as we boarded the bus. An engineering student on his way back home to Homs, he was concerned that here was an idiotic tourist about to get himself into trouble. “There are no tourists in Homs,” he told me, looking serious. “My mother and father are afraid to go out. Yesterday my sister saw a body in the street, and she’s been crying ever since.”

On arrival, he ushered me past any prying eyes and directly into a taxi, going out of his way to take me straight to a hotel in the city centre. The city centre is the only safe place, he said.

Homs is a city of more than half a million people in the heart of the country. It’s where Syrians go to escape the hustle of Damascus, to let their hair down in its cafes and restaurants, or watch football: Homs boasts two football teams, as well as a museum where tourists can read about the famous battles that were fought here.

Nowadays it’s fighting another battle: the city is under total military lockdown. The hotel I’ve been taken to overlooks the main square and its now infamous clock tower, where the Syrian army apparently ran amok and gunned down peaceful demonstrators in April.

Since then, the violence has moved into the residential areas, and into the shadows. In the weeks before my arrival the death rate rose, making it the most violent place in the country.

Al Jazeera reports: William Hague, the British foreign minister, has announced that he would meet with Syrian opposition representatives in London next week in an intensification of contact with opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian opposition members would also meet senior aides of David Cameron, the UK prime minister, at his Downing Street office, the foreign ministry said on Friday.

It said that Frances Guy, the former British ambassador to Lebanon, had been appointed to co-ordinate relations with the Syrian opposition.

The delegation would include members of the opposition Syrian National Council and the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, in meetings expected to take place on Monday, a Foreign Office source said.

“We have been having regular contacts with a variety of figures in the Syrian opposition for several months. We are now intensifying these,” the Foreign Office said.

The announcement came as the Arab league said that Syria had agreed “in principle” to allow an Arab League observer mission into the country.

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