A Life-or-Death Draw

A reportage from the besieged neighbourhood of al-Waʿr (Homs), where residents learned to live under the constant threat of cylinder rockets. (Originally published by Enab Baladi)

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(Photo: Makeshift barricades for protection against sniper fire in al-Wa'r - Homs [Koki Homs/Good Morning Syria])

(Homs, Syria) Finally, everybody stopped running around. Talal(1) heaved a sigh of relief and spotted the pale smiles on people’s faces as soon as they realized they were okay.

He bent down a little, hands on his knees. He could not believe what had just happened. He took a deep breath and muttered, astonished: “My God, the death rocket missed me!”

He was not sure how long it took him exactly to overcome the shock. A 23-year-old volunteer at the Red Crescent, Talal had never expected that, on his first day in the neighbourhood of al-Waʿr in Homs, he would have had to go through the same experiences as the residents of the besieged suburb: the ongoing shelling and the cylinder rockets. In fact, there had been hopes for peace, after rumours started circulating about a truce being signed in Damascus to end the hostilities and ensure the arrival of aid.

Talal spoke oddly – yet somewhat originally – of the sudden shift from a state of security to one of high alert, while he tried to remember the scene prior to the “shriek” of the rockets, as people called it.

He was playing backgammon with some of his neighbours and, when it was his turn to throw the dice, the “click” that the cubes made was a little louder than usual. Talal did not realize why the sound was so loud and, as he went on playing, he was surprised to see people around him leave all at once, running in all directions away from his table. He stayed there alone for a second or a nanosecond.

“I saw myself running behind them, panicking, but I wasn’t sure why. All I know is that I felt a strong desire to live, I didn’t want to die,” Talal explained.

The terror scene that Talal witnessed is only one of a dozen others  occurred over the past three months, the worst of which took place during the Islamic festivity of ʿAid Al-Adha (and in October in general). The neighbourhood of al-Waʿr was bombarded by over 230 cylinder rockets, leading to the death of no less than 125 civilians, women and children, not to mention the demolition of houses and facilities.

While this was Talal’s first experience, thousands of civilians in the neighbourhood have to endure what they call “the game of death” on a daily or semi-daily basis: a game that takes some lives and leaves the others in a state of fear.

“The rockets killed one of my best friends,” Marwan lamented, grieving the death of his friend Firas, known for his good deeds among the locals.

Marwan (30) seemed clearly emotional as he spoke of a new feeling of fear he experienced during the ten seconds between the launch of the cylinder rocket and its destructive landing. He explained that he had miraculously survived mortars and Shelka bullets. Once one of these bullets hit him in the shoulder, but he had never been afraid as he was in that moment. When he heard the “gasp” of the rocket, all his near-death experiences started flashing before his eyes and he hoped that the rocket would miss him once again.

“Being repeatedly exposed to death or injuries is horrible and scary. I could never forget when a ricochet flew by my leg and left a hole in the wall. If it had hit me, my leg would have definitely been amputated,” Marwan said.

Although rockets stir up dread and panic among civilians and cause injuries, government sources deny targeting civilians, saying that military operations and missiles are aimed at killing militants and terrorists inside the neighbourhood.

However, Abul-Wafa al-Homsi, a military expert in the opposition forces, denounced these claims.

“We all know that cylinder rockets are cylinder gas tanks or water heaters filled with TNT. Each one is attached to a rocket-powered jetpack that makes it fly long distances, and once the jetpack runs out of power, the rocket suddenly falls down. Even though rockets may resemble air-to-air missiles in terms of their destructive power, missiles practically never miss their targets, unlike rockets that hit randomly. They can never be accurately aimed at particular targets,” Abul-Wafa al-Homsi clarified.

Nine-year-old Jalal can imitate exactly the sound of rockets from the second they are launched until they explode. He tried to describe them in his simple and spontaneous way, calling them “the blind weapon.” Jalal vaunted that he never ran away from them unlike other children, but was always curious enough to follow their sound and see where they landed.

“It’s like they want to play at umm ʿamish (the blind man’s buff) with us,” Jalal said, as if the rockets were the main player in a popular children game.

For his part, psychologist Ahmad al-Shami warned about the negative impacts that the ongoing pressure caused by living in a dangerous and unstable environment could have on the future of children.

He explained that “a constant state of physiological alert can directly affect a child’s physical and psychological wellbeing. It can also have a destructive impact on a child’s brain, be it in form or function. In fact, the brain becomes focused on physiological responses to the state of alert to dodge dangers and defend the body, instead of other essential functions that are expected to be developed at this age. Therefore, the natural growth of the cerebral cortex is hindered and hence language learning, speaking, and other basic capacities that pave the way for reading and acquiring maths skills later on.”

The al-Waʿr suburb, located west of Homs, is controlled by opposition forces and has been besieged by the Syrian regime for over two years. Around 200,000 civilians live there and the neighbourhood is constantly targeted with tanks, missiles and mortars.

Mariam (26) also talked about the current situation in al-Waʿr, portraying it as a “huge prison with a jailer.” As a collective punishment for the residents of the neighbourhood, the bored jailer makes them repeatedly take part in a life-or-death draw: he enjoys their petrified reactions once they hear the signal of death sent by the launch of a rocket.

“Some might feel happy that their name was not drawn today, and yet they feel devastated for having to go through another death draw the next day,” Mariam added.

As for Talal, the Red Crescent volunteer, he remained quiet in his place even after the danger was long gone and people went on with their day. He stared at the smoke rising in the air somewhere not far away, wondering why he was having such disturbing feelings after he had been so happy to have survived. Then he looked away for an instant, as if the smoke had helped him realize what he could not express nor grasp.

Finally, he said with tears in his eyes: “The worst part is that the second I felt happy and grateful, the rocket was on its way to kill someone else, or even more people, and that ‘someone’ could have been me.”

All names used are either pseudonyms or first names to protect the identity of the sources.