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Homs: The Bleeding Capital of Syria’s Revolt

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By Ziad Rifaii
Al-Akhbar English
December 12, 2011

Multiple narratives of sectarian strife, resilient resistance to the regime, and conspiracy are circulating in Homs, home to the latest scene of confrontation between the regime and the forces of the uprising

Homs – It has been called the “capital of the revolution,” and the world’s eyes have turned towards it. The city is Homs in western Syria – the hotbed of the Syrian uprising.

The images emerging from Homs of evening protests, where the camera focuses on hundreds of protesters swaying to their festive songs, do not resemble the city during the day. Garbage piles up everywhere and the smell of destruction and blood is in the air.

Walls are painted and repainted with slogans and counter-slogans, and a sense of solemnity weighs down all political discussions.

The graffiti on major streets is covered with black paint, suggesting that it is against the regime. But you can see the anti-regime graffiti on side streets and it includes both obscene insults and reasonable political discourse.

Young conscripts stand behind their sandbag barricades, their fingers on the trigger, keeping an eye out for snipers or rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) shells.

Young men in neighborhoods and side streets observe every suspicious move. Attempts to engage them in conversations fail. Suspicion and fear of their interlocutors’ identity prompt them to answer by referring everything to a divine will: “God is with us and with righteousness. He will not fail us.”

Hassan, whose parents own a shop in the city market, takes most things humorously. But today he said, “The regime is to blame for everything that has happened. The protests were non-violent and their demands were clear. The regime used violence and brought men from other sects to put us down. This is a sensitive issue for us. We cannot accept death and stay silent, we are giving them a taste of their own medicine.”

Hassan does not want to talk about what will happen after the regime is toppled or the reason why a lot of people from other sects have not joined the protest movement.

For him, they are nothing but tools that the government uses against protesters. “We will topple the regime and we’ll have a transitional period like Egypt and Tunisia,” he insists.

One opposition activist from al-Zahraa neighborhood says the sectarian crimes “were committed by security forces in Homs to instigate trouble between Sunnis and Alawites.”

He is certain beyond any doubt that all those who died in Homs from the other sect were killed by the security forces and its gangs to instigate cross sectarian killing. But he says protesters are “aware and cautious against any efforts to drag them into sectarian violence.”

Osama, a graduate from a medical institute and a regime loyalist, says sectarian strife became a reality “since Tamam al-Mahmoud and his two companions were killed, after he was forced to confess that he brought snipers from Hezbollah to Homs and Hama.”

“Tens of sectarian crimes have been committed since the beginning of the uprising by armed men who have been embraced by the protest movement. All the protesters know that these armed men are the ones killing, setting up checkpoints, and kidnapping people,” he continued.

There were no kidnappings before armed conflict broke out. Kidnappings became common with the rise of armed groups who took over the streets. At the same time, regime loyalists accepted the rules of the game and started kidnapping people from the other side too – tit for tat.

There are no reliable figures for the number of people who have been kidnapped. The disappeared represent the most pressing issue for al-Zahraa and other adjoining neighborhoods.

Wasim Ibrahim’s cousin who lived in al-Zahraa neighborhood was kidnapped, but she was freed less than two days later. “Do we wait for the government to bring back our girls and young men while it is unable to protect its own forces or liberate them if they get kidnapped?” says Ibrahim confidently.

“All we had to do was kidnap two girls from Jib al-Jandali neighborhood and my cousin was set free. If they kidnap two of our girls, we will kidnap five of theirs. They are to blame for starting this cycle of kidnappings,” he says.

Kidnapping, which is used to exert pressure and to strike a balance of “terror” between the two sides, has raised the profile of a particular social group – the elders.

Even state media has started to use the term in reference to attempts to free kidnapped individuals, with help from security forces and elders.

Ahmad, a university student, does not deny that there are, in his pro-regime neighborhood, people who kidnapped and killed citizens from the other side. But he does say it was done in retaliation, or to exchange them.

“When the government does not protect us and we become the whipping boy or fall guy, then we will carry arms to protect ourselves. If the government arrests a wanted armed man or a member of the opposition, they kidnap a man or a woman from our sect to use them in an exchange. This is the reality of the Syrian revolution. Your problem is with the regime, why take it out on us? And then you blame us if we stand with the regime?” Ahmad said.

Rakan is a driver from Baba Amro who advised me not to go into the neighborhood without getting some sort of guarantee from the “rebels,” but denied knowing any of them personally.

“We want to be safe. When I pass by a rebel checkpoint, I tell them may God protect you and grant you victory, and when I reach an army checkpoint, I tell them may God protect you and grant you victory. That is the only way to protect myself,” he explained.

Noureddine who lives in Jib al-Jandali, a neighborhood controlled by armed groups, says it is “not possible to have a free opinion here. Non-violence and the dream of political change and ending tyranny have turned into the nightmare of armed groups who are presenting themselves as protectors of the demonstrations.”

“No one wants to believe the story of the armed groups until one of their children is killed by mistake or on purpose. Our lives have turned into hell because of them,” he said.

Noureddine’s words upset his friend Yasser, a secular member of the opposition. Yasser believes the security forces are “responsible for everything, they are the ones who played the sectarian card to prevent the protests from expanding and the presence of armed men from the beginning of the crisis forced them to acquiesce to the demands of the people. The protest movement followed [the incendiary Muslim cleric] al-Arour because he stood with the revolution from the get go.”

Yasser criticized all media outlets that have not “covered the work done by secular and leftist activists, especially the Nabd Coalition for Syrian Civil Youth, whose members play a big role in Homs by taking part in the demonstrations and easing some of the sectarian tensions.”

Abu Khaled, from the large and well-known al-Bakara tribe in Syria, left Aleppo to live in Homs twenty years ago.

“Simply put, these guys are hooligans, no more no less. They raise signs demanding protection against Muqtada al-Sadr fighters and members of Hizb al-Shaitan [party of the devil]…which is what they call Hezbollah. And they raise signs thanking the Lebanese Future Movement – it seems they receive money from them,” he said.

“I am a regular guy. I was happy to see Hosni Mubarak fall because he was a foreign agent, but Bashar Assad is a good guy. He is a nationalist and against Israel…I support him and refuse to insult him. But for me, denouncing Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, is a grave sin because he has dedicated his life to fighting Israel and only a foreign agent or a crazy person would offend him in such a way,” Abu Khaled added.

Statistics regarding the number of casualties in Syria since the outbreak of the uprising reveal that almost a third have fallen in Homs, the birthplace of many Syrian presidents. The opposition, confident of its victory, often says that the next president will also hail from that city.

Tensions in Homs had reached boiling point about two weeks ago, when the city fell into chaos for a few hours and dozens became victims of revenge killings across a number of neighborhoods.

These reprisal attacks were ignited by the execution of four people in al-Zahraa neighborhood, near the Khaled bin al-Walid mosque, as Arab satellite channels were broadcasting false news that it was being shelled.

The crime coincided with attacks on security checkpoints disrupting movement between neighborhoods. News of the killings spread among people angered over the loss of loved ones, exacerbating an already tense situation in the city and leading to 51 deaths, half of whom fell in al-Zahraa neighborhood and its surroundings.

One journalist from Homs commented on what happened by saying: “Whoever was in the wrong place at the wrong time was killed.”

Each side claims that they had to engage in kidnapping to rescue their daughters and sons, who have been captured and are being held in neighborhoods belonging to rival sects.

Each side believes that the other party is behind the mayhem, while their own are patriotic and committed to national unity.

Narrative and counter narratives extend to events that took place all the way back in April, including the killing of a brigadier-general in the army. The general, believed to be Abdu Tallawi, was killed with his children and nephew while passing through an agitated neighborhood.

There are two accounts of what happened to him and his family, and they differ about the victim’s sect. Regime loyalists say that he was killed by takfiris – hardline Islamists who accuse other Muslims of apostasy – because he belonged to Alawite sect.

The protesters insist that he is a member of the Tallawi family from Homs and that he was killed by security forces to accuse the opposition and destroy their reputation. Some even claim that he was shot because he refused to fire at protesters.

The third account is ignored due to the extreme polarization of opinions in the city. The brigadier-general was killed because he was in a military vehicle, even though he had his kids with him.

Whoever killed him was not concerned with his sect but with directing a blow to the regime, thus provoking an even harsher crackdown, which, in turn, would drag the protest movement into a cycle of violence with the state.

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Written by Maidhc Ó Cathail

December 13, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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