Homs, Syria: Inside the City of Fear

The people of Homs--a city of 1 million in Syria's heartland--rose up to demand more political freedom from President Bashar al-Assad. The country's armed forces replied with live ammunition, and since then Homs has been under siege. Yin Bogu / Xinhua-Landov

It's an abrupt twist to a conversation as I settle into my seat on the bus from Damascus to Homs: an 18-year-old boy tells me in no uncertain terms to get off, to leave the bus. We've known each other just five minutes, Mohammed and I, after he introduced himself while we were loading our luggage into the hold of the bus. I'd invited him to sit beside me at the back. With his shock of curly black hair zipped up in the hood of a stripy cardigan, he looked like the lead singer of a retro boy band. "But why? Why do you want to go to Homs?" he asks again and again. Oh, I don't know, I say: I'm touring around. This spooks Mohammed, as well it should: Homs, in recent weeks, has become a place of immense peril, the epicenter of an increasingly violent uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

I don't want to tell Mohammed I'm a journalist. Journalists are, as a general rule, barred from entering Syria, and definitely not allowed to wander around unsupervised. They are most certainly not allowed to get on a bus to Homs. I don't want to get the boy into trouble. "Tourists in Homs? There are none," he says. He looks at me quizzically for a few moments, as if he's trying to get the measure of me: what kind of Western tourist would be so idiotic as to park himself on the bus to Homs? And then, just as the bus revs its engines, his tone becomes more urgent. "I fear for you, I want you to get off the bus. Get off." It's as if he's only just realized that I must be mad—or a journalist. People are beginning to stare. Almost everyone else on the bus is an old man; maybe young men know better than to take the bus to Homs. The bus pulls away and I shrug my shoulders, but Mohammed is deadly serious. "You can still get off. Get off now."

For the next two hours we talk. Perhaps it's because I'm a foreigner, Mohammed is mighty voluble. He's an engineering student from Homs, but since the antigovernment demonstrations began, he hasn't been able to attend college in the city. Homs, where he lives, is home to just over a million people, right in the heartland of Syria. It's where Syrians go to flee the bustle of Damascus and relax in its cafés and restaurants and to watch soccer (Homs boasts two popular soccer teams, Al-Karamah and Al-Wathba). Not anymore; since March, when its people rose up to complain against economic injustice and demand more political freedom, and its armed forces replied with guns and repression, the city has been under a fierce siege. Most of the city is under total military lockdown, Mohammed tells me. No one can go out; everyone stays at home. "There are tanks in the streets where I live. You can't really walk around; it's dangerous." His father is a headmaster in a local school, but even he hasn't been able to go out to work. Everyone knows someone who's been killed or injured in his area. "Yesterday my sister saw a body in the street, and she's been crying ever since." Does he mean districts like Baba Amr, I ask, places from where gruesome but unverified clips of bombed buildings and dead bodies have been turning up on YouTube? Mohammed becomes insistent, frustrated with his inability to get the message across: "No, not just there. It's everywhere. You will see."

I did see—and hear. Later that day, in Homs, I'd chat with the manager of a pastry shop who, when he was sure he was out of the earshot of others, told me he believed as many as 5,000 people had been killed in the city in the last six months. The day after, the same man walked me to the now-infamous clock tower in the city's main square where a demonstration of 70,000 people in April was met with adamant violence by the authorities. There, chillingly, he played out the act of firing a machine gun into imaginary crowds. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Since the demonstrators were ejected from the main square, the battles between them, the Army, and unknown armed groups have fanned out into different areas within the city limits. Some residents of Homs have taken up arms, either to defend themselves and their communities against the Army and the police or to go on the attack. Amid reports of growing sectarian tension between Sunnis and Alawites, the conflict has grown more shadowy and difficult to fathom; the only thing people know for sure is that more bodies are found on the streets every day.

The living stay at home. Everyone sits tight and waits. Many homes in the city are doing without gas, electricity, or hot water; even in the city center, where I stay, there is no hot water to be found. In the morning, people walk around the city center, as if stretching their legs after their hours of being cooped up indoors. But the claustrophobia, the feeling of everyone watching and being watched, is intense. When I venture outside—everyone cautions me against it—I feel like every Syrian is staring at me. There's shooting, I'm told, in an area just a few hundred yards away from the hotel where I'm staying. Demonstrations still take place in areas of the city, often after a funeral or Friday prayers. In a café I see two waiters racing to a window and leaning out of it excitedly; one of them thought he could hear chanting going on in a different part of the city. I follow them to the window but strain to hear anything. In the early afternoon, even the center of the city begins to shut down. By early evening an informal curfew is in place and an unnatural quiet descends on the entire, empty city. Staring out at the main square from an otherwise vacant hotel, the place looks haunted, as if all its residents have been stolen away.

Chillingly, he played out the act of firing a machine gun into imaginary crowds. Rat-tat-tat-tat.

Mohammed has been luckier than most. For the last few weeks he's been shuttling back and forth between Homs and Damascus for a part-time work placement, and now he's returning home. The roles between the two cities have been reversed; now it's the hectic pace of Damascus that is a breath of fresh air from the eerie watchfulness of Homs. All the same, Mohammed misses his family; he has nine brothers and sisters, all of them living in and around Homs. Occasionally his mobile phone goes off, and he speaks to one of them to hear their news and tell them he's safe and on his way back home. Like most people in Homs and a great majority of the Syrian population, his family is Sunni. Many of the current protesters are Sunnis who believe they've been discriminated against under the Alawite regime—that President Assad has doled out jobs and influence to Alawites like himself, followers of an unorthodox branch of Shiite Islam. In return the government is claiming that the protests are being masterminded by Sunni extremists, stoked by Syria's foreign ill wishers in Saudi Arabia and even inspired by Al Qaeda. Mohammed doesn't want to discuss religious divisions within his country, which he seems to think have been greatly exaggerated. He's keener to know about the West. "Is it true that you hate us Muslims? We just want to live in peace." For the most part, however, the tone is playful, curious. I show him my swanky new iPhone, thinking that this is how to impress a Syrian 18-year-old. But it doesn't even register; he thinks I'm asking him to type in his telephone number. "Are you married?" he wants to know, asking a question that no Arab male fails to ask of a Westerner, man or woman. No, I say. "Why not?" he wants to know. I ask him the same question, and he says with a giggle that he doesn't even have a girlfriend. That's something for the future, he says—something else, besides a better country, for a young Syrian to hope for.

Syria’s streets have become war zones, as the Army cracks down on opposition protesters and regular citizens with brutal violence. Joseph Eid / AFP-Getty Images

Rewind to the bus ride, Damascus to Homs. Our conversation is becoming animated, and an old man in a headdress sitting beside us opens an eye from his half-sleep, wondering what we could be talking about in my English and his, half-garbled but still intelligible. These are Mohammed's fellow townspeople, and he seems relaxed around them. He's never been outside Syria, never really been anywhere apart from Damascus and Homs, but he's relentlessly interested in the rest of the world. I tell him I live in London. He's fascinated: "Is it beautiful? How do people live there? What are the buildings like?" He hopes to go see it one day when he's finished his studies.

Mohammed doesn't want to leave for good; he wants a job, a better life, but most of all he loves Syria.

Have I been to Iran, he wants to know. He'd really like to go to Qatar, to see the architecture there and to work. He wants to travel and to see the world, he says, but it's often difficult for Syrians to get visas even to other Arab countries. (It's a complaint I hear again in Homs from another young man, that the Arab League nations that are so concerned about the human rights of Syrians—this is four days after the country has been suspended from the League for its repression—are less generous when it comes to granting visas to its citizens to live and work. Does he think the situation might improve? In a year or two, yes. He doesn't want to leave for good; he wants a job and a better life, but most of all he loves Syria. "I am very sad for my country," he keeps saying. He says it over and over again, as if talking in code.)

As we talk, we pass a succession of military vehicles traveling in the same direction: trailers, long green buses, munitions vehicles, but mostly trucks with soldiers sitting in the back, smoking and sleeping. Truck after truck in a great, rumbling convoy; I count at least 50 of them. Then there's the occasional huge gun mounted on a lorry, the tank beached at the side of the road. Mohammed keeps nudging me to look at it all. Neither of us says anything, but he frequently fixes me a stare as if to say, "I was right, wasn't I? You should have left the bus." In return I raise my eyebrows, as if to get across the seriousness of the situation I've gotten myself into.

My companion has become my lookout, counting down at regular intervals how many kilometers it is until our arrival at the bus station just outside Homs. It is just after midday. The only safe place, he tells me as we near Homs, is now the city center itself. Together we devise a plan. He's going to write down the name of a hotel there and then I'm going to show it to the taxi driver, go there directly, and not go out again until I leave.

As I get off the bus I tell him to give me a few minutes, that I have a pressing need to use the facilities. "No, no, no," he says. "Wait. You can do that at the hotel. Just wait five minutes." Carrying sports bags, looking firmly at the ground, we march past prying eyes and toward the first available taxi—like bank robbers walking away from a job. As I get into the taxi he embraces me goodbye, and then changes his mind. No, he says, I'm going to come with you, then jumps in the back of the car. For most of the journey Mohammed and the taxi driver talk to each other in Arabic. From what I can understand they seem to be discussing the worsening violence. They're discussing me, too—how could they not?—but I trust Mohammed's judgment. On arrival we spend 15 minutes walking around searching for the entrance to the hotel, looking, all the while, utterly conspicuous. We find what used to be the entrance, but it is shut, as if permanently. Together we find a side entrance down an alley, and what looks like a private, disused elevator that will take us up to the hotel.

On the way up to the sixth floor we exchange telephone numbers, and he tells me to call him if I need anything while I'm in Homs. I thank him profusely and implore him to stay in touch, that he must let me know if there's anything I can do to help when I'm back in London. The following day, as my fears of arrest grow, I'll delete his name and number from my phone, just in case the police want to know how I got in and who I've been talking to. In any case, he doesn't seem very interested in polite offers of assistance from random foreigners. It's only later that I realize just what a help he's been. The anonymous business hotel he's brought me to makes perfect cover for a visiting journalist. Never get a taxi on your own, someone in the city advises me; if the driver is friendly with the authorities there's a good chance he'll take you straight to the police station and you'll be deported, possibly after being roughed up. Two days after I leave, a Syrian news cameraman was discovered dead on the main street in Homs, according to the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists. He was found with his eyes gouged out.

In the hotel lobby I offer Mohammed some money for his journey home, but he won't accept it. I've taken you out of your way, I say. I want to give you some money; you need to get home. I take out a large Syrian bank note and try to force it into his hand, but he is not having any of it. In any case he's changed his mind about going home; one of the telephone calls he took was from home, he says, and they've told him it's too dangerous to go back there. He's going to stay with his sister instead, who lives in a safer part of town. One final embrace and Mohammed is gone, back into his world of grim menace, leaving me in the hands of a hotel manager who turns out to be just as gently solicitous as Mohammed was.