(NY Times) - Little by little, the central Syrian city of Homs is losing its infrastructure and its landmarks. The national hospital lies in ruins. Rebel-held neighborhoods stretch for blocks without an intact building.
Many government offices are closed. The silver-domed mosque of Khalid bin al-Waleed — named for an early Islamic warrior particularly revered by Sunnis — stands pockmarked and perforated.
Abandoned cars rust beneath piles of rubble and downed wires.
Homs was an early bellwether of what Syria would become. One of the first cities to rise up in rebellion, it was home to mass demonstrations. As protests turned to armed revolt, the city began to split, largely along sectarian lines, with much of the Sunni majority supporting the uprising and members of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect joining pro-government militias. Now, after more than a year of siege, bombardment and clashes, which have intensified recently as the government has renewed its assault on rebel strongholds, Homs may well be the site of the most concentrated destruction in the country.
“For two years, the regime couldn’t retake Homs,” said a man who identified himself as Abu Nizar, 55, a resident of the Ensha’at district. “Now they want to retake it, but after changing its demographic and sectarian fabric.”
For many months, Homs has been a city divided. Several central areas have been gradually flattened as they have changed hands, with the army briefly retaking control, only to lose it again. Government-held areas continued to function, with shops and restaurants open, preserving a rhythm of daily life. But recently, the government sought to break what amounted to a stalemate. The army began raining rockets and shells onto rebel areas in and around the old city center as pro-government fighters vowed to retake control and open a route to the north.
On a recent visit, the city seethed with fear and antagonism. “This time we will clean Homs completely and will not leave any germs behind us,” said a pro-government fighter who called himself Abu Haidar. “Homs should be cleaned forever from all traitors.”
Mr. Haidar, a large, muscular man with a shaved head and a tattoo of an Alawite symbol, the sword of Imam Ali, said he led a unit of the National Defense Forces, one militia that the government has brought under a formal structure in recent months.
He said he had clear orders and strong support from the leadership of the army’s toughest unit, the Fourth Division, headed by Mr. Assad’s brother, Maher, to rid Homs of what he called terrorists and Wahhabis, followers of a rigid Sunni ideology that the government broadly ascribes to rebels.
He described a tough fight. Rebels, he said, are using churches and mosques, including the revered Waleed mosque, as bases, “so we have the right to attack them inside.”
In the narrow streets of the old town, he said, tanks cannot penetrate, and soldiers must go house to house. Rebels have dug tunnels and cut through walls, he said, popping out to shoot soldiers in the back.
“We will retake Homs,” he said, “whatever the cost and whatever weapons we use.”
A persistent rumor among rebels — an indication of the sectarian fears pervading the city — is that government forces plan to spirit away the warrior’s remains from the tomb inside the mosque. Lying in an underground makeshift hospital near the intensely contested neighborhood of Khalidiya, a fighter, Bilal, who like most people gave only his first name for safety, said he cried when he saw the damage at the Waleed mosque.
“Homs has two nicknames, the city of al-Waleed and the city of jokes,” he said, his face sallow as he recovered from a leg wound. “The killer Bashar al-Assad killed the smiles and the jokes from Homs, and now he wants to destroy the mosque.”
The rebels have no trouble finding fighters, he said, but they have so little ammunition that some fighters have left because they have nothing to shoot with.
A doctor, Mohammed, 28, looked exhausted. He was juggling 20 patients with only eight beds, no clean water and what few supplies could be smuggled in by a colleague who, because he is Christian, could pass checkpoints more easily.
He said he had received patients in recent days burned over their entire bodies with what he believed were incendiary chemicals. Several thousand people remain trapped in the besieged neighborhoods, he said, including Sunni and Christian families, elderly people and mothers unable to nurse because they have nothing to eat. Hungry families respond to food with a touch of Homsi humor, another resident said: one joyfully celebrated the harvest of a single tomato; another, excited to find a live chicken, ensconced it in luxurious privacy in the soft bed of a newlywed couple, hoping for eggs.
The fathers of those families, the doctor said, were fighting. “They fight to live, not to die.”
In the rebel districts, shops and malls stand open and looted. Hills of garbage line the streets. Water and sewage pour from broken pipes in bombed buildings. Rebel fighters have forced residents from their homes, using them as barracks. Snipers are everywhere, and the army’s armored vehicles can be seen pushing closer.
As the government moves its offices to districts it controls, antigovernment activists have established their own registries for births, deaths and marriages. The government is relocating electricity, water and telephone service centers; banks; and exams for high school students. That way, said Abu Jaber, 50, a taxi driver, there is “no need for the rest of Homs.”
Crossing into the government-held districts, the anti-Assad graffiti and Islamic slogans on the walls are replaced by pictures of Mr. Assad, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and army flags. Residents say the government is installing Alawite families in apartments abandoned by Sunnis, and burning property records to prevent the owners from returning.
The Alawite-majority district of Ekrima could be entered by an outsider only with the help of an Alawite government employee, past three checkpoints overseen by security officers and soldiers. Inside, women in camouflage uniforms, carrying rifles and radios, inspected cars and checked IDs.
Over tea and a water pipe, Abu Haidar, 40, a former cigarette-shop owner turned pro-government militiaman, described the fighting.
At a checkpoint between Homs and Damascus, there was less zeal. Soldiers asked for bribes as small as a bottle of juice or a pack of cigarettes.
One soldier from the Druse-majority province of Sweida, in southern Syria, said he had had no leave for 10 months, and he had missed his brother’s wedding. New recruits are scarce, he said; there have been none from the almost entirely Sunni eastern provinces in five months.
Like the rebels, he said he was running out of ammunition. “The government,” he said, “saves the bullets for the hot areas.” - NY Times: Ruins in a Center of Syria’s Uprising
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