It has now been a full year since they were cut off from the rest of the city, known as the capital of the Syrian revolution for its early role in the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Today, most of Homs is on lockdown. Many of the more ‘secure’ districts are divided by checkpoints, with their residents fearful of arbitrary arrest. But the worst conditions are found in the 14 besieged areas, including the ancient Old City, walled in by the government army checkpoints and under bombardment.
Steady shelling attacks have nearly destroyed the infrastructure of these neighborhoods, scattered across Syria’s third largest city. Like much of the city’s public works infrastructure, electricity, water and sewage networks are either in disrepair or completely inoperable.
For the past year, the some 7,000 people trapped inside these neighborhoods have come to rely on generators and water wells. There is no hospital or proper medical clinic, and the wounded and sick are sent to an under-equipped field hospital.
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Yazan’s life changed on June 9, 2012.
“I was a normal guy, no different than anyone else,” the 28-year-old said. “I studied international relations in Damascus, and I had returned home to Homs to work and complete my research for my Masters degree.” Shortly thereafter, everything changed. Peaceful protests in Homs gave way to armed confrontations between government forces and rebel fighters, and on June 9 his area was completely cut off by the regime.
Abu Rami al-Homsi is the spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a coalition of 40 opposition groups, and a resident of the besieged areas. He said that the blockade was completed that day when government troops stormed the Ghouta district: “This had been the last artery that allowed people to bring in food and pharmaceutical supplies and evacuate the wounded.”
Since then, some 600 families—trapped along with Free Syrian Army fighters—have been completely cut off, surrounded by regime checkpoints, unable to smuggle in supplies or hope to escape.
“The siege is total—for a year no one has entered or exited,” he said. “The first month or two were okay. The area is very big so there were things we could find to survive on. People found food in other houses and that kept them going for a while, but soon those supplies ran out.” So did medical supplies. “There were pharmacies in the area where we could find medicine at the beginning, but then it was less and less. Anything that was there at the beginning is gone now.”
The National Hospital of Homs was once the best equipped in the area. It was reduced to rubble by shelling in April 2012.
On the day we spoke, regime forces were attempting to break into the besieged areas, still home to activists and Free Syrian Army fighters, by battling through the comparatively safe Wadi al-Sayeh district armed with rockets and machine guns.
The international relations graduate is attempting to document residents’ lives under veritable house arrest. He now takes daily photographs. The images can be surreal. In one photo, a group of rebels pose with their weapons in front of a snowman.
In another, two young children stand alongside enormous copper shell casings that reach above their waists. And in a third, four girls giggle as they fill up water buckets to bring to their families — suddenly adults.
In order to communicate his images and experience to the outside world, Yazan relies on a satellite connection for Internet. There is no local service.
“Electricity might last four hours a day, or it could last eight, but we never know,” he said.
Solidarity Under Siege
Residents have become like family. “All of the people in the besieged areas prefer to share food with others rather than take it for themselves,” Yazan said. When powdered milk is found, it goes to children. When people stumble upon wild lemons or berries, these are taken to the wounded and sick.
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They’re figuring out how to make the situation work until an escape route is cleared or aid funneled in. There’s no bread left to buy, so Yazan said families, like others across Syria, have learned how to bake their own. To do this, they rely on a depleting supply of flour. Then they’ll move onto the remaining rice, lentils and canned foods. Vegetables and meat have become a thing of the past.
“After a year, people understand each other, and they are trying be patient and bear the shortages and deprivation,” Yazan said. “People exchange food and help one another secure flour and gather firewood.” (There is no cooking gas.) “Sometimes during my rounds of photography I find spices or chickpeas or dry beans in abandoned houses. Maybe they were not found because the place is difficult to reach—under the rubble or near to where the army is stationed. When I find anything I bring it back to divide it among families.”
His hope for the coming year is that the residents will finally have some relief from the siege. “We need doctors to care for the sick and wounded,” he said. “There are only four physicians here, and it is very tough without supplies. Of course there is not enough to last us another year.”