Destruction in Insha'at, Homs. Image courtesy of Omar Shakir
February 17, 2012
Nadia* is a beautiful young lady from a prominent family in Homs. Every day for months, she would stare at her closet in agony; she had nothing to wear. Her behavior was typical of millions of girls her age around the world, but unlike those millions of girls, she wasn’t on her way to meet friends, go to a party, or spend the day shopping. She was going to a protest. She said her wardrobe decision was difficult because she had to choose an outfit that was fitting enough for a protest, modest enough for detainment, and honorable enough to die in.
When I spoke to her a couple months ago, I asked her, "Aren’t you afraid?" She said, "Afraid of what? Death? No, we no longer fear death. We have tasted freedom. We know what it is like not to be afraid. For the first time in my life, I am surrounded by men with guns in military uniforms, and I am not afraid. For the first time in my life, I feel protected." The men she speaks of are the defected soldiers who joined the Free Syrian Army. They would form a protective circle around the crowds of chanting civilians. That human shield allowed the dense, daily protests of Homs to continue for months. Protests that no longer exist in a city under siege.
A few weeks after we spoke, fear returned to Homs and to Nadia’s life. One day, they heard security forces were searching the neighborhood, looking for protesters and defectors in hiding, while spreading their usual dose of intimidation. Two girls who were alone in the house beneath Nadia’s rushed upstairs—they were terrified of being alone when the security forces came. Soon a group of men knocked on Nadia’s door and marched inside. While they spoke, the men eyed the group of girls. Nadia later said, "They looked at me in a way that shamed me in front of my father." They asked for everyone’s ID cards. The neighbors’ girls did not have their cards with them. The men said, "We will go down with you to get them." They trembled with fear but acted as if they were not afraid at all. Nadia’s father asked the men to sit down for coffee, he told them firmly he would accompany them to get the girls’ IDs. The men were taken aback by this small act of kindness but they also knew the father was not going to leave the girls or his family alone with them without a fight. They drank their coffee and left without asking for the girls’ IDs. The girls were physically untouched but still shaken. Nadia’s mother fainted, as they listened to the thumping of boots slowly fade down the staircase.
Nadia’s family lives in a well-established neighborhood called Insha’at. Rows of ordered buildings stand proudly along clean, wide promenades. It’s a neighborhood where not only does everyone know everyone else, but they are most likely related. The neighborhood itself is described as an extended family of the most prominent names of Homs: Atassi, Jandali, Rifai, and others. They were highly educated, well-off, and proud to be from Homs. Some of the Insha’at families had already fled from the violence in the past months. They locked their doors and went to Beirut, Dubai, America, anywhere—to wait out the revolution. But many had remained. They stayed not because they did not have anywhere else to go; they stayed because they chose to. They were determined to be part of the revolution that has personally affected almost every family in Homs. They were determined to live through the hardship. Nadia’s family was one of those families who said they would never leave Homs or the revolution behind.
For the past two weeks, they have lived in terror. They wake up to the shelling that pounds neighboring Baba Amr all day and fall asleep to the sound of sniper gunfire and emergency wails from the mosques. Last week a shell hit their home, breaking the windows, they covered the empty frames with sheets of plastic. Last week they survived sixty consecutive hours without electricity, living off of whatever hadn’t yet rotted in the freezer and the diminishing non-perishables in the cupboards. When the shelling intensified, they huddled in the basement with the rest of the neighbors. Nadia and her parents sat as close to each other as possible. When they would dare to go up to their home—to get something they needed or check if the telephone lines were working. They walked up the stairs together, the three of them sharing each step. Nadia said they were worried a rocket would hit their home and one of them would survive just because they were a step ahead or behind. They were planning to die together.
On Saturday, they heard shouts over loudspeakers. The army ordered the people of Insha’at: leave or die. They were given two hours to evacuate their homes, warning them to leave the doors open and not take anything with them. Insha’at’s tall buildings that look over Baba Amr were perfect for sniper nests. The comfortable apartments were also perfect for the army to loot and upgrade their living arrangements.
Nadia’s family walked out of the house she and her siblings were born in, a house filled with decades of a family’s memories and material treasures. A house that was their life. They descended the staircase for the last time together, weeping with each step. Not knowing if they would ever return. They joined the others on the street. She described the scene,
"I wish I never opened the door and saw my streets. Destroyed cars and broken trees; bodies under the rubble of buildings. We left them our home, and our lives, so they can occupy them and use them to hit Baba Amr. There are trucks parked in the streets already being filled with furniture from our homes. People run in the street with their barefooted children because their building was just hit. I saw an old woman holding a finger, kissing it. That is all she has left of her son, who was buried under the rubble of their building where they could not get him out."
Syrian-American woman told me the story of her family who lives on the border of Insha’at and Baba Amr. She had begged them for weeks to leave Homs, but her uncle told her, "There is no way we are leaving the people behind just because we can escape."
But their building was bombed on Friday, and they had to leave. Their car had been crushed by tanks like all the other cars in the neighborhood. Her elderly uncle carried his ninety-year-old mother on his back down the street, because they feared she would stumble and fall. A fall that would be deadly in a city void of any medical care. She said her young relative was kicked out of her house six weeks ago. The army walked into her apartment to check the windows and the view—to decide whether they wanted it or not. "She was petrified, she had young kids, so she just grabbed her stuff and took off." They never went back to their home. She calls her family displaced. "I do not know how many people are living in random people’s houses."
Nadia’s family walked to the checkpoint at the end of the street, ducking each time they heard the sniper bullets fired above their heads. At the checkpoint they were searched, item by item. Nadia had a small bag with only her pajamas. Buses stood by, ready to take the people to safe houses across Homs, to be taken in by whoever would (or could) welcome them.
Not everyone made it the checkpoint. One family of three, a man, his wife, and his sister, was gunned down in front of their building after being promised safe passage. Maybe they took too long to leave or maybe they were just an example to the rest or maybe they were merely a shooting exercise for the snipers.
Nadia’s family headed towards a relative’s empty home. In normal circumstances, this journey would be a five-minute walk. That day it took them much longer, as they passed through checkpoint after checkpoint, being searched over and over, to make sure they had not taken any valuables from their home. They were officially homeless. They walked down streets they no longer recognized. Because this is the Insha’at today.
Although Insha’at borders Baba Amr, before the revolution that border was an invisible but hard line that separated two worlds: the privileged and the underprivileged. Insha’at depended on Baba Amr for services, and Baba Amr depended on Insha’at for jobs. Since the revolution began, that line slowly dissolved as the people of Homs united together in protests. The people of Insha’at sent food and supplies to Baba Amr. They called to check on the safety of their housekeepers and chauffeurs as often as they called their own family members across the city. Members of prominent families like Atassi and Jundi were imprisoned and murdered along with the sons and daughters from humbler backgrounds. Today, Insha’at is targeted along with Baba Amr, al-Khalediyyeh and al-Tawzii al-Ijbari. Unlike the still-silent elite of Damascus and Aleppo who, for the most part, have abandoned the cries of the protesting masses, in Homs, everyone stood together. And now they suffer together.
Activist Rami Abu Maryam in Baba Amr told me (via Skype) that the situation in Baba Amr today is dire. "There are no medical supplies except gauze and cotton, and now almost only cotton is left. The wounded who are in need of operations are in bad shape. For instance, we have amputation cases which we can’t do right now. Every day someone dies because they are injured or they need medicine." He said food supplies are also running dangerously low, "We’ve lived on burghul now for five days. There is no bread. There is no flour. There is no milk for babies." Another activist adds, "No one can leave Insha’at or Baba Amr," because as he says, "between every sniper and sniper, there’s a sniper."
Before I ended the Skype call with the activists, I told them what they were doing was heroic and epic. I told them that the entire world was watching Baba Amr. And I told them that I wished I were with them. Abu Maryam said, "If you were with us, you would have ran away!" We all laughed. When they found out I was from Aleppo, I told them I wished I were from Homs. He said, "We will give you an honorary Homsi citizenship."
I was delighted by their offer. But the truth is, none of us needs an honorary Homsi citizenship. We already consider ourselves to be part of the city. We know its neighborhoods and its people like we never did before. If there is anything this revolution taught us, it’s that Syrians are no longer separated by bonds of loyalty to their cities and segregated neighborhoods. Just as Baba Amr bleeds into Insha’at, Homs bleeds into the rest of Syria.
Anti-aircraft tanks, plastered with posters of Bashar al-Assad, entered Douma, a suburb of Damascus, on Saturday randomly shooting at anything in range. The man films the scene and says in a voice shaking with both fear and resolve, "For you Homs. Shoot us instead." In Baba Amr, citizen journalist, Khaled abu Salah stood in a shelter with a group of children who apologized for not being able to protest the last eight days while they were under siege. So they had an indoor protest and began with a chant for Aleppo. In Aleppo, brave university students chant for Baba Amr and Homs. Across Syria, cities greet one other with their chants. Every city chants for Homs and Homs echoes their support. This is what the revolution has done. It gave us back our country.
Exodus, nuzooh, has become the latest word Assad has added to our Syrian vocabulary. Refugee was also a word we did not know until recently, and now we have thousands. Murder, torture, rape, looting, oppression, fear—all these words belong to Syria now. Not because of outside forces, not because of "armed gangs," not because of a conspiracy, but because of the brutality of the relentless Syrian regime.
In the last eleven months, other words that were not part of our vocabulary have emerged as well, like determination, courage, and sacrifice. And resilience. An activist asked me, "How else do you explain how an army can attack Baba Amr with tanks and planes for over ten days and Baba Amr is still standing?"
Yesterday, Baba Amr was in flames after a fuel pipeline explosion that covered Homs with a cloud of thick, black smoke. A new constitution of "reform" and "rights" is being drafted in Damascus as the shells fall over Hama, Idleb, and Zabadani.
Who will have the last word? I do not know. But I do know there is a girl who sleeps in a bedroom that is not her own, while strangers occupy her home. I know that she knows her family is still one of the fortunate ones.
Now, she literally has nothing to wear. She has nothing but her unwavering belief in the resilience of Homs.
*Nadia’s name has been changed for her protection.
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