Syria’s wasteland of ghosts and sorrow

A ‘war waged by thieves’ has desecrated the Old City of Homs

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

The route from the bustling outskirts to the Old City of Homs runs through tidy residential neighbourhoods strewn with road blocks and anti-suicide- bomber slalom courses of low walls painted with the national flag in red, white and black.

After negotiating these we pause at a checkpoint to allow a weary soldier peer into the car’s empty boot, slam the lid and tap the roof three times as a signal to drive ahead into the wasteland wreaked by a war not yet won by the regime but not yet lost by insurgents dominated by radical fundamentalists.

For a few months in 2011, Homs – Syria’s third largest city – was the “crucible of the revolution”, inspired by the mass uprising in Tahrir Square in distant Egypt, but political revolutionaries were soon eclipsed by armed groups and radical jihadis fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Handiwork of warring sides

In the Old City the handiwork of the warring sides, a wasteland of ghosts and sorrow, embraces us. The new clock tower stands at the centre of a wide square surrounded by ruins. The old clock tower has vanished and been replaced by a lamppost bearing clock faces ticking away the hours until Old Homs is restored.

The hot still air is infused with the stale smell of scorched concrete. A team of municipal workers is pumping oil from red drums into jerry cans, ferrying them over crushed masonry in a ruined shop to an electricity transformer serving the area. Engineer Farouk Hishmeh, hat firmly planted on his head to ward off the sharp sun, says they have 20 per cent of the area restored. “We have 10 teams and 10 workshops here. It will take a year to do the job.”

Rubble is piled on the right side of the narrow streets so cars can drive on the left. Soldiers and national guardsmen keep watch. Few people are about, most of them assessing their losses and the cost of reconstruction.

At the Um al-Zennar Syriac Orthodox cathedral, Fr Zahari Khazal, a bearded man in spotless black soutane, is holding forth in the wide courtyard while workers try to repair the damage inflicted on May 7th on one of Christendom’s most ancient churches, built 59 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.

Girdle of the Virgin Mary Departing fighters torched B

ibles and furniture, blackening walls and ceilings and cracking marble floor tiles in the church and adjoining chapel. The charred remains have been cleared and new pews brought in for services. The precious girdle of the Virgin Mary, housed in a niche in the chapel, and ancient icons had been secreted away by parishioners.

“A Syrian commander burned the churches, on orders from outside,” Fr Zahari says, his grey-green eyes snapping with anger. “No outsiders will help restore the church. The Syriac community will do it.”

He is a member of the committee of clerics and civilians that helped organise the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the besieged Old City in February and escorted the remaining 900 fighters when they departed a month ago.

Talal Darrouj and Leen Khozam are wheeling a push chair bearing large bottles of water down the dusty street, preparing to clean a family flat.

“We are getting engaged tomorrow,” Leen says, proudly displaying her elaborate gold ring. “Now we live near the Crac des Chevaliers,” a massive Crusader castle to the west. “We will return.”

Ruined Agha restaurant At the once elegant but now ruined Agha restaurant, located in an Ottoman mansion, and where Bashar al-Assad dined with his wife, Asma, before the war, we enter the bar, used as an operations room by rebel fighters who left behind

books, clothing, bedding and packets of medicine. “We’re going to open as a café in a month to get people to come back to the Old City,” the caretaker says.

The grave of 75-year-old Dutch Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt is in the garden of the monastery where he lived and suffered starvation with the inhabitants of the Old City, refusing to leave after insurgents seized control and the government mounted a siege and blockade. Plastic flowers adorn the grey slab of his tomb and the chair where he sat when a masked man shot him in the head on April 7th after he refused to leave. No one knows who killed him or why.

Samer Kabak takes us to see the three-storey building where he and two brothers have flats. The wall of a bedroom in his apartment on the first floor has been sheared off and the building shattered by bullets and rockets and pillaged of all valuables. Although everything is coated in sticky beige dust and there is no running water or electricity, Samer is living here while arranging repairs. His solar water heaters shop next door has also been looted.

The grand black-and-white striped stone Khaled Ibn Walid mosque topped by silver domes was built in the late 19th century by Ottoman Sultan Abdel Hamid on the site of earlier mosques. The first, dating from the 7th century, was constructed over the tomb of Khalid Ibn al-Walid, a companion of the prophet Muhammad.

Battered by government artillery after jihadis moved in and set up sandbagged firing positions, the mosque awaits renovation. Even the taps at the marble fountain for washing before prayers have been stolen. “This is a war waged by thieves,” says Haitham Shehadeh, a former member of Syria’s national football team.

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