February 23, 2012

Rebels and Ordinary Citizens Alike Struggle to Survive the Bombing of Homs

In past months, most of the daily dose of hellish scenes coming out of Homs had a perverted rhythm to them. “These are your reforms, Bashar al-Assad,” the narrator generally intoned over and over, panning over scenes of buildings reduced to rubble or zooming in on the bloodied face of a dead man. But as the government's heaviest offensive yet continued to close in on the southwestern neighborhood of Bab Amro, dragging into its twentieth day, there was little energy left for stylistic normalcies. In the four videos uploaded onto the Bab Amro News site on Wednesday, the narrator's voice cracks, panicked, as he hurries to film what he's seeing before dashing back inside: the hiss of shells as they whizz into the neighborhood, then columns of smoke rising into the sky like mushrooms in a field, one after another, the closest one just a few doors down the block from him. The shells land every few seconds. In another, a paramedic at a makeshift field clinic wails after realizing that the toddler she is supposed to treat, a gaping hole under his armpit and his middle heaving precariously, is her grandson.

Since government forces began their heaviest offensive on Homs on February 3, they quickly claimed the next door, Inshaat, converting apartments in its high-rise buildings into military outposts and driving tanks through the streets. Poor, marginalized, and more heavily militarized, Bab Amro was not about to fold so easily. Activists said government forces launched the artillery attack on Homs after rebel fighters controlling Bab Amro blocked ground troops from entering. Even now, after 20 days of shelling, they said, the rag-tag rebels calling themselves the Free Syrian Army are still holding the edges of the neighborhood. “There are not many clashes,” Hadi al-Abdullah, 26, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Council of Homs who hails from Bab Amro, said Wednesday night. “The Free Syrian Army is still blocking out the borders of the neighborhood, but the regime's army is not even trying to enter now. They're just shelling randomly from 2-7 km away.” Five of their men were killed in the bombings.

The rebels may still be hanging on, but the activists increasingly are not. Abdullah had to flee last week after suffering a shrapnel injury. He spoke from a safe house just outside Bab Amro. Likewise, 21-year-old Omar Shakir of the Bab Amro News team said he fled two days ago, also to a safe house just outside the neighborhood. Before that, he'd been staying in the same makeshift media center in Bab Amro as Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, the two foreign reporters killed Wednesday after a shell hit the building. Four of the activists from Shakir's team were also injured in the attack. Activists suspected that government forces directly targeted them after locking onto the satellite signals being used for their broadcasts. Danny Abdul Dayem, the British-Syrian dual national whose dramatic English-language videos became regular features on global news broadcasts, escaped to Lebanon ten days ago. Rami Ahmad al-Sayyed, responsible for livestream broadcasts, was killed earlier this week when a mortar hit the car out of which he was helping unload injured patients. Even Fadwa Suleiman, the Alawi actress who galvanized protesters when she joined them in Homs, left the city earlier this week, according to a statement posted on Facebook by a friend.

Internationally, the stalemate shows little signs of a breakthrough. A “Friends of Syria” group of representatives from 80 countries is set to meet in Tunis on Friday, as the Syrian National Council, the main external opposition umbrella group, increases its calls for military action. But the council's calls remain at odds with those from other opposition groups, such as the National Coordinating Council, which opposes the militarization of the conflict. Even internally, the council remains deeply fragmented; some groups have not even assigned members to fill designated seats due to political disagreements, while coordination with the Free Syrian Army—which influences dynamics on the ground to a far greater extent, remain minimal. As Center for a New American Security fellow Marc Lynch argues in a new paper, international military force would likely only exacerbate the problems underlying the conflict. To break the impasse, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only international aid organization operating in Syria, is proposing a two-hour daily ceasefire to allow for the delivery of emergency humanitarian aid. After serving as a chronic spoiler at the Security Council, Russia has come out supporting the proposal, claiming to be working its contacts within the Syrian government to push them to accept.

But if the Assad regime is seriously considering the proposal for humanitarian support, it is showing little signs of it in Homs. Phones lines and essential supplies are still cut in restive neighborhoods. The pounding of Bab Amro left more than 80 dead on Wednesday, activists said, with the damage especially heavy on Hakoura Street. Asked why Hakoura had been hit, Shakir answered with resignation. “Today it was Hakoura's turn,” he said. “That's it. Yesterday, it was on another street. The day before that, another street. Tomorrow, another street.” By Thursday, it began to look as though those rebel forces guarding Bab Amro and waiting out the bombardment might be starting to give way; though activists reached on the ground disputed the report, Reuters said that tanks had started to push into part of the neighborhood. Mortars began falling on other embattled neighborhoods like Inshaat and Khaldiyeh, while tanks appeared in Jobr.

Of the neighborhood's popular figures who have given the world faces and name to attach to Homs' story, only two remain. Khaled Abu Salah, who rose to fame when he challenged Arab League observers to work harder to see the government's atrocities, appeared in film showing the foreign journalists' bodies in the rubble of the press center. Abdulbaset Sarout, the 22-year-old soccer star who pumped his fist in protests and gave voice to popular revolutionary chants, stayed, too. Alongside violent footage of the escalation, Arabic satellite channels played on loop a video of both of them sitting with Rami Ahmad Sayed, gathered in the dark playing the oud and signing of a freedom, a ghostly reminder of the sacrifices all three have been willing to make.