Ian Black reports: Baba Amr, the rebel-held suburb where the journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed by government rocket fire in February 2012, is devastated and looks eerily deserted. A militia roadblock bars access. Other parts of the city are in surprisingly good shape. In Inshaat, where rows of gleaming white UN vehicles clog the car park of a state-run five-star hotel, the streets are clean and orderly, restaurants bustling for the Ramadan Iftar meal.
No one knows exactly how many Homsis have fled abroad, or how many are displaced inside Syria. But last month the UNHCR still counted more than 352,000 people from the city registered as refugees, the majority in neighbouring Lebanon – a quarter to a fifth of the prewar population. Rumours abound of abandoned property in pro-opposition areas being taken over by Alawite loyalists and looting by the widely disliked, Iranian-trained National Defence Army. Statistics are not available.
Opposition activists now living elsewhere reject the government’s upbeat narrative. “Homs is a city of horror,” said Razan, whose Sunni family was involved in the mass protests of April 2011 and suffered in the subsequent army offensive and repression. “If there had been a real solution people would be able to go back, but hundreds are still in prison. The government is removing some checkpoints and trying to show that everything is fine. But it’s crazy how they’ve managed to cover it all up and brainwash people just by saying, ‘Let’s move on.’”
Samer, a wealthy businessman, puts it bluntly: “The whole thing is designed to snuff out the rebellion.”
At al-Waer, a couple of miles to the west, a war of sorts continues. Like other rebel-held areas across Syria, this part of Homs is still under siege. The top flats of several tower blocks are burned out – hit by government artillery taking out snipers. But it is a mostly static and curiously intimate sort of conflict. Residents, including state employees, commute in and out of the suburb every day to work or study, going past army and rebel roadblocks that are just a couple of hundred yards apart. Skinny boys scamper to and fro earning a few pounds carrying shopping across the space between them. Negotiations on the terms of access, and perhaps an eventual old city-type evacuation deal, are continuing sporadically.
“It’s hard, especially for the children, and the main worry is their psychological welfare,” says Afra, a law student, glancing warily at the uniformed security officer loitering nearby as she describes the situation inside. “As an adult you can cope, but the little ones don’t understand what’s happening. They are afraid of sudden noises and if a door slams they jump.”
Omar, a middle-aged shop owner, says the fighters in al-Waer are Syrians, many of them locals – not the foreigners who are vilified in state media – and mostly keep themselves to themselves. “Two days ago they started shooting at each other. When that happens it’s scary and we want the army to go in. We are tired. I bought a new house and it’s lost its value. We want to get this over with.” That sense of weariness is widely shared – in Homs and beyond.