(Homs, Syria) The journey in and out of the al-Waʻr suburb (located west of the Syrian city of Homs), which has been under siege for almost two years now, is an adventure fraught with fatal risks every time. At the only crossing, people standing in line are searched for “smuggled” breadcrumbs.
She was rubbing her hands, clearly nervous. After a three-hour wait at the crossing, Leila(1) finally took out what she was hiding in her pocket, her hands trembling, and revealed her smuggled trophy: a “precious” candy bar that is not allowed into the besieged neighbourhood. “I promised I would bring him one,” the twenty-one-year old girl said triumphantly. “My little brother will be so happy to have it!”
Among the 150.000 civilians living there, Leila is one of the 5.000 students and employees who are allowed to travel back and forth between al-Waʻr and other localities.
The Particularity of al-Waʻr
Since the departure of the opposition militants from the old neighbourhoods of Homs and their settlement in the city’s northern countryside in compliance with the ceasefire deal reached in May 2014, Homs fell entirely in the hands of the Syrian regime with the exception of al-Waʻr. Thus, the Syrian Army easily blockaded it and intensified both air and land strikes against it.
The presence of about 150.000 civilians displaced from other demolished neighbourhoods in the al-Waʻr suburb complicates further the situation. The Syrian regime prohibited civilians from leaving the neighbourhood as a collective sanction, while imposing strict restrictions on them. “If you don’t reveal your college or work ID, as well as your personal one, you can’t access or leave the neighbourhood,” said Abu Tareq, one of the besieged civilians. Therefore, students and employees have to support their families and try to bring in whatever they can.
Attempts to Lift the Siege
As people endure their daily journeys through the regime’s checkpoints at the entrance of al-Waʻr in a repetitive scene, the items they try to bring in, such as jackets, luggage, or even food, are confiscated, except for some rare cases where people are allowed to carry in some vegetables. Rami, a government employee, said: “It all depends on the mood of the guards at the checkpoint.” “They pile things up right in front of us and burn them to ashes,” he added to explain the fate of confiscated goods.
When asked why they keep taking the risk of carrying things with them, Rami replied: “We have to. From time to time, the guards at the checkpoint suddenly allow us to bring in what we are carrying . The closest residential area is about 12 km away and buses are seldom available (for us to commute) at any time. We have no choice but to take our risks every single day.”
For his part, Adnan, a college student, is seriously considering not going back to the al-Waʻr neighbourhood to save more time for his studies, by sparing himself the fatigue of his daily journeys. However, he feels too guilty to do so, especially since none of his family members is allowed to leave the suburb. “The problem is that I am like the only source of oxygen through which my family can breathe,” explained Adnan, “I feel confused, juggling between university and the support that I can provide for my family.”
Long Queues and a Never-Ending Cycle of Terror
The fact that essential items are not allowed or even burnt is not the only problem people are suffering from at the checkpoint. Khaled, a math teacher, believes that his life has become a “real nightmare”, a “nerve-wracking game” that he experiences while standing in the morning line at the checkpoint. “Last week, they arrested two young men and a girl,” he said, “my whole body shakes at the mere thought that I could be the next.”
Khaled mockingly added that the fear of being arrested is a mere “morning warm-up” for a new cycle of terror awaiting them upon their return to al-Waʻr in the evening. “Once we finally cross the checkpoint – after we had long endured curses and mistreatment [from the guards] and seen them throw away our things – we have to run fast to dodge the bullets and go home, in the hope that our walls would protect us from the random night shelling,” said Khaled.
Human Rights Watch mentioned in a statement that “the Syrian regime forces intensified shelling on the al-Waʻr neighbourhood, which is still in the hands of the Syrian opposition’s armed factions, while prohibiting civilians from leaving it and preventing aid from getting through.” The organisation also called on the warring parties to facilitate the arrival of aid into the neighbourhood with no restrictions.
Meanwhile, the supporters of the regime see in the civilians of al-Waʻr an “incubation environment” for opposition militants and this “justifies,” in the words of a soldier of the Syrian Army, the harsh treatment of students and employees and the fact that they are not allowed to bring food with them.
The Cold Makes It Worse
Even though the region is witnessing a severe cold wave, the Syrian government does not allow fuel into the suburb. In fact, the four crossings leading into al-Waʻr are controlled by the Syrian regime and employees are only partially allowed to use the Misyaf crossing, which is the farthest crossing from the city centre.
Sara, a civil engineering student, complained that “the road through the only crossing in Misyaf is too long and waiting in the cold is catastrophic.” She is tired of spending long hours on the road and queuing up, forced to tolerate provocations and humiliations. Sara reported the story of a young man who was hiding a few ounces of salt in his clothes. As a punishment, an officer forced him to remain without his shirt for hours. Sara added: “When I finally arrive home, freezing from the cold, in need of love and warmth, my family looks at me wondering why I had come back empty-handed.”
What about the Opposition Forces?
The opposition forces are not one solid entity like the Syrian regime troops. They are a mix of several brigades affiliated to different leaderships and factions, each of them with its region of influence. When asked about the interactions with the opposition forces inside al-Waʻr, Omar, a university student, said: “Sometimes I feel some of them are looking at me in a weird way, but they never interfere in what we do. We usually reach our homes with no inconvenience worth mentioning. As long as you’re not carrying a camera, or caught taking pictures with your mobile phone, you’ll be fine.”
For her part, Um Alaʼ, a government employee, had a different experience. “I had to vote for Bashar Al-Asad last June to keep my job,” she said, “consequently, some opposition militants, especially the young ones, started calling me names, but it ended after that.”
Appeasement and Hopes of an Upcoming Breakthrough
The al-Waʻr resident Leila places her hopes in the negotiations held in mid-January 2015 at the home of the governor of Homs between delegations from the opposition and the regime. The declared aim is to reach a peaceful solution to ease the pain of civilians and end the siege. She is looking forward to a serious truce that will put an end to the suffering of civilians and allow them to go on with their lives without fear. At last, Leila said: “How nice would it be if I could bring home boxes of cookies without having to hide them!”
All names used are either pseudonyms or first names to protect the identity of the sources.