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The Conversation: In Homs, An Unusual Population Census

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and a 24-year-old teacher and university student in Homs who wished to be identified only as “SA.” Last week, all eyes were on the battle over the strategic city of Qusayr, but for SA the biggest worry was the changing demography of Homs amid a new wave of arrests – and a census.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

I live in the same district as the local military security branch. Arrests have spiked over the past four months, and dozens of people have been tortured to death. A number of them were my friends. I do not know why this is happening now, but it seems to be systematic, aimed at pushing people out and changing the demography of the city.

I myself am displaced. I left my house in Bab Houd a year and a half ago, before the district came under siege. But even when we left there was little electricity and we were lacking even the basic necessities. There was a high risk of arrest or death. I had gone with my family to live outside the city, but I came back when I got a job as a teacher in Homs.

My students are 16 and 17 years old, and many of them are also internal refugees, since most of the city is now uninhabitable. The biggest problem they face is the lack of security – the risk you undertake every time you are on your way to and from home. And it is difficult to study in such a tense atmosphere.

The city is divided. Most people in Homs are Sunni. The districts are now like big prisons, especially for vehicles, with one way in and one way out. In contrast, residents of Alawite areas can move freely from one neighborhood to another without any checkpoints or fear of arrest.

Every three or four districts has a security branch that is responsible for those areas and mans its own checkpoints. Activists are always targeted for arrest, but more often than not, the detentions are arbitrary. Most of the detainees are young men. They are not always tortured to death, but this has become increasingly common over the past four months.

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Often these arrests are sectarian, but the regime will kill anyone that challenges it, whatever the sect. Some of those arrested were Alawites, who could have easily joined the shabiha (pro-regime gunmen) and had the absolute freedom to loot.

Four months ago some shabiha entered my neighborhood and arrested seven young guys. They brought them back dead two days later. One of them was my friend Thaer. He was a high school engineering teacher and was never an activist – none of the seven had any relation to the revolution. Two of the other victims were under 14.

When things like this happen there is nothing to be done. A simple funeral and a three-day strike is all we can do. People are afraid of a reaction by the security forces. In the eyes of the people, the police, the security forces, the army and the shabiha are all one entity. Even the security branch no longer delivers the body to the family of the deceased; they just bury the body immediately to avert a funeral.

An Unusual Census

In the third week of May there was a government census conducted in my area. A census itself is not unusual, but it had never been conducted in this way.

Those carrying out the census were from the military and in uniform, not civilians. And whenever they completed a street, some of the young men were arrested the next day. It seemed like an excuse to search for people they wanted. Eleven people were arrested in my district from their homes, and all of the entrances to the neighborhood have been closed except for specific streets monitored by checkpoints. They check the identity of passersby and often arrest people.

The districts where the census was conducted were Karam al-Shami, which is mostly Sunni with some Christians, and Khadr, which is a mix between Sunnis, Alawites and a Christian minority. It became clear in the past three months that the regime wants to frighten people to leave the city. Many people emigrated in May and other are also intending to do so. For June and July thousands of people from Homs have made airline reservations for Egypt. And the number is growing.

As for myself, I do not want to leave my city. I do not want to leave during the revolution. My biggest hope for the coming year is that the revolution will succeed.

Ambulance to Jail to the Grave

Every day I have to go through regime checkpoints, and I know that I may be arrested. Doing relief work and aiding displaced people is reason enough for detention. Carrying medication could be considered by the security as aiding terrorists. At first I was always nervous before crossing checkpoints, but then I became used to them. I don’t care anymore if I am arrested, though I still worry about my friends and family. Right now I have five friends in prison and I have no idea what happened to them.

The regime is using any excuse to round up young men – they tolerate women and the elderly. Even people who are injured in an explosion or by gunfire can become suspects.

One of my closest friends, Mohammed, was arrested from an ambulance after being wounded in an explosion on March 14. He was standing alongside two of his friends, one of whom was killed on the spot. Mohammed was taken in an ambulance, but then he and even the crew of paramedics were detained. The crew was released the day after but not him.

We found out Mohammed had been killed and buried on March 19 without the knowledge of his family. They didn’t get the news until the next day. Mohammed was a student at the faculty of civil engineering. Yes, he was involved in the revolution, but he was badly hurt when they arrested him so I doubt he could have responded to an interrogation. It’s more likely he was left to bleed to death in jail.

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