A 10-minute foot and motorbike journey into Syria's heart of darkness.
Somehow, no matter how many articles you've read or photos you've seen of the carnage in Homs, there is something uniquely chilling about watching this point-of-view video of one man's journey into its war-torn neighborhood of Jouret Shiah.
Taken partly on foot and partly from the driver's seat of a small red scooter, it portrays Homs as an apocalyptic wasteland. The streets are mostly empty and totally silent, save for a distant but steady stream of gunshots. At one point, the videographer finds a group of young men -- the only people we see are young men, everyone else appears to have fled or hidden in the few still-habitable homes -- evacuating, from the back of a sedan to the bed of a pick-up truck, a wounded and obviously terrified rebel fighter.
Somehow, it's the scenes with no action at all that are the most unnerving: a long row of burned-out cars, streets blanketed with cinderblocks blown out of neighboring buildings, a complete dining room set perched in what remains of a third-floor apartment and totally exposed after the ceiling and wall have been destroyed, presumably by the Syrian government's near-constant shelling of this city of 750,000 people.
The video, posted last Friday by the (avowedly anti-Assad) Beirut-based news site Sawtberuit.com, is one of the few records of life in Homs since the government began laying siege to it earlier this year. Even the Red Cross/Crescent gained access only on Wednesday, after convincing both the government and rebels to allow a brief ceasefire so that it could retrieve the wounded.
Though it's even more difficult to verify than the video above, one other possible first-person account of today's Homs is from the blog "Thoughts and feelings of a Syrian freedom fighter." As with so much of the media that's come out Syria's civil war, I have no ability to verify its content or even that the author is who he says he is. All I can say is that the blog, which launched last September, has been passed heavily around Middle East-watcher circles over the past week, and I've seen no one raise suspicions. His most recent post tells, hour by hour, what he says is a typical day in Homs. Here's how it opens:
I woke up at 5 AM after three hours of "sleep", checked if there's nearby shooting or shelling, got dressed then went out to the bakery. I found 11 people in front of me, and an hour later there were more than 100 behind me. At 7:16 it finally was my turn. I bought $1 worth of bread (We're not allowed to buy more) and went home.
At 8 AM, I was done with the bread (preparing it and putting it in the freezer to keep it fresh), and then I had breakfast.
8:30 AM, I watched the news, got depressed and went back to bed (Since I don't have a business to go to, because it's been closed for over a year now, like most other businesses in Homs, but that's a story for another time). In bed I tried to check my email and twitter but I found out that 3G and GPRS aren't working. I don't have ADSL at home so I have no internet connection now. No big deal, I'm used to it. But unlike the previous six days we have fresh water since morning.
12:30 PM, I got up, went out to buy vegetables which can't be found easily, and as I was walking, I heard noise, and then a security forces' vehicle passed by, followed by a tank, then a pickup truck with a huge machine gun (Shilka), I then went to a street where there's more than one store and found most of them closed.
I went inside an open store and started collecting the things I need, only to be interrupted by the same vehicles once again passing right by me, and that's when I quickly turned my Smartphone's camera on and filmed the tank passing by without them noticing.
Seconds later, the Shilka started shooting and it was only 5 meters away from me. I was inside the store so I lied down on the floor next to the salesman. The glass shattered and the goods started falling from the shelves on us because the entire place was shaking badly.
Fire paused for a couple of seconds and that allowed us to crawl to another section of the store that has a wall to hide behind and a sink. The Shilka started shooting again and this time three bullets hit the store's front. We ducked behind the wall waiting for what's coming next.
At that moment, surprisingly, I wasn't afraid. I actually felt like it's the ending of me and was somewhat relieved. As a Homsi, I made peace with death a long time ago.
Like the video, this anonymous account portrays Homs as bleak and exhausted, a city that has been beyond demoralized by months of shelling, military occupation, and an unrelenting siege. And yet, they keep fighting.