Syria’s wasteland of ghosts and sorrow
A ‘war waged by thieves’ has desecrated the Old City of Homs
The Old City of Homs, bearing the scars of Syria’s war. The old clock tower has vanished and been replaced by a lamp post bearing clock faces ticking away the hours until Old Homs is restored. Photograph: Karin Leukefeld
The grave of 75-year-old Dutch Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt 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. Photograph: Karin Leukefeld
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 sidesIn 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 The old clock tower has vanished and been replaced by a lamppost bearing clock faces ticking away the hours until Old Homs is restored.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.”