Ancient Syrian City A Wasteland Of Modern Violence

Feb 2, 2014
Originally published on February 2, 2014 1:17 pm

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Talks in Geneva have ended without any concrete action on Syria. In fact, even without a concrete promise from the Assad government that it will show up for another round of talks next week. The two sides had lengthy discussions about sending aid into the Syrian city of Homs, Syria's third-largest city. But they couldn't agree on passage for an aid convoy. And that means hundreds are still stranded without food or medicine.

In a minute, we'll try to get a sense of what life is like in Homs today and what the people there think about the peace talks in Geneva. But first, we have this rare glimpse inside the city of Homs in the early days of the fighting. Today, it's nearly impossible for Western reporters to get into Syria. But MORNING EDITION host Steve Inskeep was able to pay a visit to Homs last summer. In his encore presentation, Steve gives us a profile of a place that was already devastated by war.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Homs is one of the first places where Syria's uprising became a full-blown war. In 2012, a reporter told the BBC of government artillery strikes killing children in a section of Homs known as Bab Amr.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWSCAST)

MARIE COLVIN: I mean just today, shelling started at 6:30 in the morning. I counted 14 shells hitting just this civilian area...

INSKEEP: That reporter, the American Marie Colvin, was killed in Homs the next day. Syrian forces went on to wreck Bab Amr. Much of the populace fled a zone that is now surrounded by concrete barricades and Syrian army checkpoints. It was at one of those army checkpoints - decorated, like most checkpoints, with a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad - that we contemplated the area as it stands today.

We're looking at two- and three-story buildings that had been blasted away to the building frames, and some of them have collapsed in rubble. There is nothing alive in here but grass that I can see, but we'll take a closer look.

We found a place where several streets came together at an angle. It once must have been an appealing space surrounded by restaurants and shops. Now, every street was empty.

You may be able to hear this a bit. There's no sound in this neighborhood except the rattling of these bullet-riddled metal gates that had been pulled down on the shops when they were closed for the last time.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLING GATE)

INSKEEP: The wind was blowing those gates. It blows a lot in Homs, and blows so consistently that all around the region the trees have grown up leaning the same direction. Rebels once hoped the political wind might blow in a new direction. Instead, it blows the wreckage of Bab Amr. But hang around here a minute, just wait, and you realize the steel gates are not the only things moving.

Oh, there's a little kid walking down this devastated street.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And then we saw a yellow taxi. We waved it down and discovered a family - returning.

This is the first time you've come back, right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You are right, old guy.

INSKEEP: Would you mind if we followed you home?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No.

INSKEEP: Sure, said the man in the front seat, who was the family patriarch. In truth, he did seem to mind. He seemed unsettled by the armed agent the government had sent with us on this day, and by the prospect that we might draw the interest of some rebel sniper. Still, he let us follow.

So we're going into a narrower street now, a residential street.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOTORCYCLE)

INSKEEP: I don't know if that was a soldier or not on that motorcycle. He had camouflage pants and a black shirt. Some of these houses may not have been totally destroyed. They're covered in graffiti, the gates are closed but they don't seem burned out.

When we reached the family house, the patriarch stood outside, as if not ready to enter.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DOOR)

INSKEEP: So we walked in the door with the patriarch's adult son, Abd Ali.

So there's no electricity in here. We're in the dark in this central room. What do you think about the shape things are in?

ABD ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: It's in rather good shape, he said, though we noticed that soldiers had written their names on the inside walls.

I'm actually a little stunned. The rugs are still here, the furniture is still here. These lovely chairs with one of - is that one of your daughters, the little girl who just climbed on the chair?

The family's life is not in such good shape. Abd Ali used to run a stationery store nearby.

So I assume that shop is destroyed.

ALI: Bye-bye. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Maybe things will get better, he said, step by step. But his city is still at war.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

INSKEEP: Bab Amr is only one section of Homs. Rebels and the government still fight for other areas. We took a walk to the front line through a tangle of narrow streets, toward ruined buildings in no-man's land. Our interpreter was talking when a mortar shell struck.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We noticed that the guys...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...who's coming...

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

INSKEEP: The mortar shell had landed a block and a half behind us, on a street we'd just passed.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

INSKEEP: When we had a moment to ourselves, we encountered a local man who said the government distressed him. He'd fled his house in a combat zone to stay with relatives, and was thinking of fleeing farther.

Are you going to stay here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't know. I don't know. Maybe.

INSKEEP: Do you change your mind every day?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All the time. All the time. It's very difficult for me.

INSKEEP: The man told us he left Syria years ago and then returned during a wave of optimism, when Bashar al-Assad came to power. But the business he started in Syria was slowed down by bureaucrats expecting bribes.

Is that corruption one of the reasons that so many people in Homs oppose the government?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Of course. Of course.

INSKEEP: And on top of corruption, he faces fear. The Homs man says some of his neighbors have disappeared, snatched by kidnappers or security forces.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN EXPLOSION)

INSKEEP: The complaints of the Homs man are common, but still commonly dismissed by supporters of President Assad. They still insist the rebels are manipulated by foreigners. That's what we heard when we visited the provincial governor in Homs, Ghassan Abdul-Aal.

What legitimate grievances do the Syrian people have against the government, if any?

GHASSAN ABDUL-AAL: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: The governor began by saying Syria is different than other Arab nations. We have a certain freedom, a certain democracy - maybe not the kind everyone talks about, but our own kind.

ABDUL-AAL: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: During the interview, we heard a low and powerful thud in the distance. When we left the governor's office, we learned what it was. A rebel rocket had smashed into a busy shopping street. It was in an upscale district of Alawites, the powerful Muslim minority to which President Assad belongs. Until that moment, the Alawite area had been almost untouched by the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHATTERED GLASS)

INSKEEP: It was night. We saw shattered glass glistening in the light, from clothing shops. In the gloom above those shops, we saw a ruined facade. The rocket had struck a third-floor apartment. Authorities were still calculating the number of injured or killed.

The history of Homs stretches back to ancient Roman times, and even before. And as we walk the city streets, a famous quote from Roman times came to mind. It was in a speech recorded by the historian Tacitus: They make a wasteland. They call it peace.

Homs today has the wasteland. Its people are still waiting for peace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.