Mónica G. Prieto (Homs, Syria)
Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
- We start publishing a series of reports written during these Christmas holidays by our correspondent Mónica G. Prieto in the Syrian city of Homs, besieged and bombed by the army under Bashar al Assad’s regime.
It was impossible to recognize young Ali Ahmed al Zeib in the remains that lay in the humble kitchen. The inquiring look the 15 year old gave his mother hours before when she remembered the sudden loss of his brother Mahmud, 12, victim of a nail bomb dropped by a Syrian tank a month ago on his street, was now frozen; his limbs were gone. It hurt to remember little Ali while he helped, just a few hours before, Umm Yihad to look for pictures of his brother, when he held his breath while she referred with pride to the loss that, she said, “was breaking her heart”. “But he has died as a martyr of the revolution, thank god, and I’m willing to give out my sons one by one to end this regime. Since I was little I learnt from my parents that Hafez Assad [father of the current president] was a criminal. I thought his son would not be so bad, now I’ve seen that he is even worse than his father”.
What Umm Yihad could not suspect is that barely a few hours after welcoming Periodismo Humano in her home in Baba Amr, one of the most significant neighborhoods in Homs, the military aggression launched by the Syrian regime against its citizens would snatch away two more of his children. At six in the evening of Tuesday December 20th, a missile landed right in her home, unleashing what Baba Amr considers the worst massacre since it rebelled against Bashar Assad. Ali Ahmed lay in the kitchen torn into pieces, his big eyes lost in the emptiness. One of his arms stuck out among the rubble, which just an hour before was a spacious and simple home where Umm Yihad handed out fruit, a luxury given the siege of Homs, to her guests. The remains of Ali and Yihad, his older brother, 24, had been scattered around the room making up a grotesque collection of scraps. On one side of the room, a huge tray with rice makes us think that they were in the middle of dinner when the explosion that has broken once more Umm Yihad’s heart took place.
Al Zeib’s family, well known in Homs, was not the only victim of the tragedy caused by Bashar Assad’s forces. Part of the house next door, which belonged to the Al Aads, collapsed because of the strength of the explosion. The dust and the smell of death and explosives make it impossible to breathe. The neighbors’ howls, completely shaken, made the ambiance even more surreal. “This way, this way!” The stairs, full of debris, led to a second floor where several men worked frantically. One of them held a flashlight, shedding some light onto the impenetrable darkness of the night in Homs, where the Syrian president does not allow its inhabitants to enjoy the luxury of electricity as a punishment for not submitting to his police regime. Another one carried a blanket. A third one, on the roof, brought down with difficulty a bloody lump: a spinal column with bloody bits dangling from it. He threw it onto the blanket and vomited. The second man wrapped it up while the others tried to locate more remains of someone who just hours before tried to wear out another terrible day.
Welcome to Homs, besieged, bombed and attacked by the forces of the Syrian dictatorship since five months ago, where the supposed Salafists the regime claims to be fighting turn out to be children, women and men whose crime is to demand freedom. Welcome to the real Homs, so different from the one described by the Damascus Government, who maintains that it is fighting armed terrorists, where the only weapons are those of defecting soldiers without enough ammunition for hand-to-hand combat with the attacking Army and its militia, the shabiha, irregular forces with enough impunity to have constant random shoot-outs, which usually cause a dozen victims every day.
Welcome to Homs, where the only places to treat the injured are private homes set up as field hospitals like the one that sheltered the members of the Al Aad and Al Zeib families, where the wounded share a room with what is left of their relatives because public hospitals are in the hands of regime loyalists and have been turned into detention and torture centers. Welcome to Syria, where citizens live in such a state of fear that not even the injured dare to give out their true names because they are scared of the retaliation they or their families might suffer for having been shot by the Government.
Report during the bombing of the city of Homs during Christmas 2011, done secretly by journalist Mónica G. Prieto during the siege.
In Al Naas cemetery, close to the train tracks, 40 tombs lay open as wounds in the earth. “In this town we are all candidates for martyrdom, we have to keep the graves ready every day to receive our shahid”, explains Abu Ayyad, one of the citizens that has devoted his life to the popular insurrection against the regime. Next to him, recent and meager graves inform of a new martyr’s fate. “Often they open fire against funerals, so we cannot stay here too long”, the same young man says. Sometimes a piece of cardboard serves as tombstone, symbol of the scarcity and the urgency. “Shajid Marzuk Sharif al Nasser, deceased and tortured at the Army hospital”, reads one of them. “In Homs we call it maslah al askari, instead of masfah al askari”, says one of the activists, making the others smile. The expression masfah al askari, Army hospital in Arabic, has been replaced by maslah al askari, Army slaughterhouse.
Some hours later, in the dead of night, the Al Zeib and Al Aad families buried what was left of their loved ones in that place. In the field hospital there is not a morgue where they can keep the remains a long time: the closest thing is a room where they store the corpses and put ice over them until it melts. The next morning, they had to hold another service for the last human remains found among the rubble when daylight made it possible to find them.
The improvised hospital runs almost exclusively on one generator. Electricity was never a problem in Homs until the revolution began, neither was water. Now the regime uses both elements as a means of collective punishment. There is only four hours of supply and no one ever knows when they start and when they end. But there is a shortage of many things in Syria’s third city. Every morning people line up in front of tank trucks and the places where they used to sell gas. Neighbors ask one another where to find fuel, essential for the heaters set up in every living room to fight the low temperatures, close to 0ºC that Homs suffers in the winter.
Medical supplies are also scarce. And it is not because the population did not stock up on them before or because they have not found the way to smuggle them in from outside, with the help of Syrians in exile or fled during the repression to dodge an arrest warrant, but because it is very hard to break the siege imposed on the city by the regime. The only doctor that directs the field hospital, Abu Berri, a man wanted by the authorities –“for being a Salafist”, he says erupting into laughter as he strokes his beard and leans on Lina, his nurse, who answers knowingly to his joke patting the doctor’s knee- goes over what they need. “Blood, serum, anesthesia, antibiotics, bandages, respirators… We are amputating with knives. We do tracheotomies with arguile [water pipe] tubes because we lack the equipment. In this three-room house we perform surgery, stabilize, clean up corpses and even sew shrouds. It’s a miracle that we save any lives”.
Homs civilians run across an avenue under indiscriminate fire from snipers and soldiers from Assad’s army. (Mónica G. Prieto/Periodismo Humano)
Everything seems like a miracle in Homs. Many victims of the repression cannot reach the cemetery safely. It depends on where the 40 –according to activists’ estimates- government checkpoints are placed, on where the snipers spread along the city’s rooftops have taken up position, on where the death has taken place and on the distance from the graveyard. Many times the neighbors are forced to bury their loved ones in their yards, because the crossfire does not allow them to go any further.
Baba Amr feels lucky in spite of everything. Unlike the rest of Homs, the Free Syrian Army, the group of soldiers who have defected horrified by the regime’s actions, is still in control of the neighborhood. This extremely poor militia has eight checkpoints that attempt to protect the access routes, and its members keep watch on every stranger that tries to enter the neighborhood. Their means are the ones they had when they defected: on Shaat al Arab Street, a single grenade launcher leans against a wall, next to the sandbags piled up to make a trench.
If the regime decides to bring them down by force, they can get it done in a few hours, but the number of victims would be huge. “Our only mission here is to protect civilians. We do not have the capacity to launch an attack on Bashar’s Army”. That is probably what keeps them from making that decision, and what allows Baba Amr to be now the site of daily improvised protests where everyone, from small children to elders chants slogans that range from the well-known “Only god, Syria and freedom” to “We would rather die free than live without dignity”. A blend of choirs on the streets that sounds to them as a gust of freedom.