Syria is a country in crisis, ripped apart by daily battles and intense fighting.
Waking to the sound of gunfire is never pleasant; when it is incoming and down your street it is particularly unnerving. In Homs, every day starts with sniper fire. Every day. People queuing to buy bread or vegetables scatter. Children start crying, cars screech into reverse while men and women gather what they have and head for the protection of alleys and doorways.
Nine people died at a crossroads at the end of the street we were staying in last week. More will likely die today. Not once in four days in this city of 850,000 people did I feel even remotely safe.Sniper fire and all-out fighting between government troops and the defectors of the Free Syrian Army, the FSA, is a constant.
All around are the ever-present indicators of being in a war zone; destroyed buildings, men with guns, checkpoints, the injured and the constant sound of crying. It is miserable. A particularly intense outbreak of fighting was interrupted by a car screeching to a halt outside our flat. We were rushed to a field hospital where surgeons were trying to save the eye of a middle aged man; the latest sniper casualty.
They removed the bandages, a quarter of his head was missing, his eye ball completely revealed. Beside him a little girl was being treated as well. She could not have been more than 10 years old. Her screams quietened a room of men used to seeing the terrible effects of the fighting. We were hurried away. The field hospital is known to the Syrian military and they were frightened we would be caught.
The doctors risk being shot for treating the casualties and they cannot work in their own hospitals as the injured are routinely executed by the Syrian government’s forces as they arrive for help. These are civilians caught up in the fighting, remember, not combatants. On a street corner, her voice struggling above the sounds of gunfire, a woman asks me where the help from abroad is.
“Give us a no-fly zone,” she says. In Homs you hear that basic request time and again. They want what Libya got and cannot understand why they are any different.
Day after day they are burying the dead. In one suburb of Homs, 15 died in a single government attack. Thousands attended the funerals for six of them to pay their respects and to defy the government. Their resilience is astonishing. Every funeral is now a political statement, every body laid to rest another reason to fight.
What is really nasty in the conflict is the use of armed militia by Assad to carry out his killing. They are known as the Shabiha. Shabiha gunmen try to infiltrate the cities where the opposition is strongest and open fire without warning. It is designed to terrify. It is a tool of a regime that is clinging on to power through fear and through the might of its military.
Homs, like many of Syria’s cities, is a war zone. The buildings are ruins and there are army checkpoints everywhere – 260 checkpoints encircle Homs, there are 42 in the district of Bab Al Amr, the restive heart of this revolution, where we stayed throughout our visit.
What started as a peaceful revolution has morphed into a civil war. The FSA, made up of defected soldiers and volunteers, have a single job, to protect the civilian population. They are extremely well organised but lack major firepower. They insist they do have heavier weapons but are so frightened of the regime’s jets and helicopters that they keep them hidden.
Whatever, I saw nothing more powerful than RPGs and automatic rifles. Assad says they are militant extremists. I saw nothing to back that up either. A defector arrived at an FSA checkpoint protecting one of the night-time anti-government rallies that take place every day. I asked him why he had escaped the army, and he shrugged and said it was because he was being asked to fire on unarmed people. He was not an extremist; he just could not follow the orders to kill innocent people.
The rallies are remarkable events in their own right. For 244 days straight they have gathered in defiance of the government. They are held in side streets now. The central square in Homs where they used to meet is simply too dangerous. They gather in their thousands, secure inside the walls of buildings and with the FSA on the streets.
At Friday prayers they listen to their Imam tell them that they are alone and must fight on alone. They desperately want the world to help, but there is a growing realisation that the international community lacks the resolve to directly assist them. “If we had known it would be like this, if we had known nobody would help, we would never have started this,” one of their leaders confided in me.
“But it has started and now we have no choice but to continue,” he said. On the streets they sing and dance to anti-government slogans. There is an indefinable ‘something’ about the way they look. It took me a while to work out what it was, but it is actually fairly simple and I have seen it before – in the eyes of people in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya. It is important they are prepared to die, because carrying on is no longer acceptable. In Homs they are preparing to die.