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Syrians seek shelter in a city of rubble

At one school in Homs, about 300 people live together. Everyone wants to go home, but left unspoken is the dismal reality that few have homes to return to.

September 08, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • The Khalidiya district of the Syrian city of Homs, pictured in late July, is in ruins.
The Khalidiya district of the Syrian city of Homs, pictured in late July,… (Joseph Eid / AFP/Getty Images )

HOMS, Syria — The voices of children emanate from the orderly confines of the Martyr Mohammad Hawa School. Some youths tend to cornstalks in a makeshift garden. A veiled mother lingers in the front doorway with her young daughter. As the midday heat subsides, there's a noticeable burst of energy on the streets outside.

But it's not children leaving class for the day. The kids working the garden are living at the school. The mother and child are desperate for help. Some extra food? A place to stay?

The school is no longer an institution of learning. It's a citadel of survival. For almost 18 months, its classrooms have provided shelter to about 300 people, mostly women and children, left homeless by the civil war raging in Syria, and specifically in this city, which went from obscurity to global infamy two years ago as the epicenter of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad.

"We just want to go back to our homes," says Amira, a grandmother who lives with her extended family in one of the elementary school classrooms, and, like many others here, preferred to be identified by her first name for security reasons.

Everyone wants to go home. Left unspoken is the disquieting reality that few here have homes to return to. If anything, things will get worse long before they get better.

The U.S. is now debating military strikes to punish Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons. Rebel forces say they intend to launch attacks across the country to try to change the tide of war in a country where the United Nations says 1 in 4 people already have been driven from their homes.

More than 2 million Syrians have left the country; an additional 4 million displaced people remain, a sizable number living in schools, half-completed apartment blocks, abandoned buildings, makeshift shelters or with relatives.

Most staying at this school are from Homs' Old City, once this provincial capital's bustling core, now a rubble-strewn battleground where pro-government forces have been advancing relentlessly against entrenched and encircled rebels.

Several thousand civilians reportedly remain trapped in the Old City — too fearful of the Syrian army and allied militias to leave, according to the rebels, or, in the government's telling, as human shields.

As is often the case in Syria's war zones, each side sticks to its version as an article of faith.

Meanwhile, gunfire crackles, explosions detonate and smoke rises with regularity from the tightly packed warren of alleys and streets of the Old City, which encompasses more than half a dozen distinct neighborhoods, all now situated on a continuum between heavily damaged and flattened.

Syrian soldiers positioned on their side of a no man's land point to corners and landmarks ruled by unseen snipers hunkered down somewhere behind blown out windows of bullet-pocked buildings.

"They fire at us, we fire back at them," says an elderly pro-government militiaman in the Lion's Gate district, largely recaptured by government forces and their allies in recent months.

Another government militiaman, Bassam, hops off his motorbike to lead several visiting journalists on a tour of the mostly abandoned streets, occasionally marked by a burned-out vehicle or the shell of an armored personnel carrier.

"People think I'm a Muslim because of this," says Bassam, a former fine arts student in his 20s, stroking his thick black beard. "Actually, I'm a Christian."

The sectarian dimension of the conflict seldom recedes here. Sunni Muslims, the majority in Homs, have long chafed at the rule of the Assad family, members of the minority Alawite sect. Christians and other minorities tend to side with the government against what they view as an onslaught of Sunni Muslim fundamentalists and Al Qaeda-linked foreign fanatics. Graffiti on walls in Lion's Gate carries the signature of "Abu Ghazwan, the Libyan" and other rebel personages who passed through, leaving behind scrawled traces of their jihad odyssey.

"We are the sons of the area," proclaims the pro-government Bassam. "We can rebuild it."

The overriding impression of Homs after a pair of visits is that of a community of more than 1 million in collective shock, though the war has hit unevenly.

In Zahara, a mostly Alawite district, the main drag, Share Hadharah, or Civilization Street, buzzes with cafes and eateries that continue to cater to families and students from the nearby university. Soldiers posted every few blocks puff on cigarettes and sip mate tea from metal straws, appearing at ease.

In some other districts here, the damage has an almost hallucinatory character. There's a haunting quality to the rows of abandoned and shot-up shops along Droubi Street, once a lively downtown commercial strip. Absent pedestrians and businesses, the thoroughfare is forlorn and disturbing, with tanks and armored vehicles sitting where shoppers once parked their cars.

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