By Razan Zeitouneh
It is not easy to talk to an activist from Homs about his city; as you are talking, you find yourself alternating between laughter and tears without even realising it.
What could one possibly ask about a city that has lost more than 1,200 martyrs since the start of the revolution? Despite these losses, Syrians still avidly await the daily demonstration in Homs, broadcast live by some satellite channels.
These demonstrations have come to resemble freedom carnivals that are often held a few metres away from where the firing and shelling takes place daily.
According to Majd Amer, an activist since the beginning of the revolution, demonstrators gather in a relatively safe space, sheltered by houses and narrow alleys. The demonstrators then block the entries to their gathering spot using rubbish bins, among other things, and place look-outs who whistle to warn them against security raids.
But raids and tank shelling are not the only source of horror in this city, now known as the capital of the Syrian revolution. The sound of sniper shots is even more terrifying than that of automatic rifle shots or even shelling. If you ask Majd to describe that sound, he would say, “It’s simply an announcement of certain death.”
Majd was one of the first to attend the demonstrations with his family. He calls the rooms in his house after areas in Homs, according to how “safe” each room is. His parents’ room is Khalidiyya and as for his grandmother, who never stops shouting and castigating him, her room is called Baba Amro, after the area which usually witnesses heavy clashes with security forces. The lounge is called Bab al-Siba‘, because it is always crowded with guests and family members.
As the regime intensifies its violent crackdown on this rebellious city, life in Homs is becoming more tragic by the day. Majd’s car has turned into an ambulance; he says he has to change the seats whenever he transports any wounded, because security forces at checkpoints usually look for traces of blood inside cars. Lately, he has not even been able to transport the wounded, as security and military checkpoints have cut off the different parts of the city from each other.
Things took an even bloodier turn on that infamous day when the sit-in near the clock tower ended with a massacre just a few hours after it started.
“Preparations had been made to bury those killed the day before, while mourners headed towards al-Shuhada’ cemetery in Bab Tadmur,” Majd said. “It was the largest crowd I had ever seen in one place.
“After the burials, people started chanting as they gathered in Bab Tadmur square; I was overwhelmed with joy and pride.
“About half an hour later, some demonstrators started pointing to the statue of the infamous Hafez al-Assad and chanting: ‘To Hubal, to Hubal,’ [referring to the pre-Islamic Arab deity, whose statue denotes infidelity for Muslims].
“Directing the crowd towards that spot meant a massacre,” Majd continued. “I think those who were trying to do this were undercover security agents.
“We then started yelling to redirect the crowd towards the marketplace through Hamidiyyeh street. We begged the demonstrators, and even cried so that they would not keep heading towards the statue.
“Until that moment, the idea of staging a sit-in or even reaching the clock tower had not occurred to us. When I finally made sure the crowd was heading towards the marketplace, I sat on the ground and started to cry. I was barefoot and my clothes were torn, but I pulled myself together and marched with the crowds, whose chants were reaching the sky.
“As we marched down Hamidiyyeh street, people sprinkled us with water from their balconies and the women were ululating with joy. As people were gathering by the clock tower, news of the sit-in was reaching other parts of the city, and more people started heading there.”
Majd recounted these events as we sat in the Toledo café. He paused briefly to bring me a cup of coffee. He said he could never hope to relive such precious moments again. His words reminded me of what freedom fighter Muhammad Najati Tayyara said from the stage of the sit-in that day; he thanked the revolutionaries, saying it was the first time he had felt free during his 60 years of existence.
“It does not matter whether I live or die anymore,” Tayyara said.
But what had started as the most beautiful day for Homs ended as one of the most tragic and painful. In a matter of a few hours, thousands had put up tents and prepared the square for a sit-in that was meant to last until the toppling of the regime. The regime, however, had other plans.
“I was heading back home around 11:30 pm to shower and change before returning to the sit-in. When I passed by the museum, I saw them in the dark,” Majd said.
“They stood hiding in the entrance of the building that overlooked the clock tower, wearing their revolting uniforms and carrying automatic rifles.
“I stood in the street alone, in the night which was as dark as the cruelty of an assassin. As I lit my cigarette, I saw dozens of them in full gear, sneaking into the building.
“I kept walking – I was trembling; I couldn’t go back because they would have noticed that I had seen them. As I walked past that place, my heart nearly stopped at the thought of getting shot in the head. I then went into an alley nearby, where I stood petrified.
“I tried for 10 minutes to reach any of the demonstrators by phone. Someone finally answered and promised to evacuate the square immediately. When I called him again a few minutes later he told me that a clergyman at the sit-in had reassured him these security forces were there to protect the demonstrators!
“I was shocked to hear this answer and my only reaction was to go back home. I washed and lay down, trying to believe that story, but I couldn’t. When I called again, the other demonstrators told me the same story. I was so tired that I fell asleep, only to wake up to the sound of bullets.
“I suddenly found myself in the street, running towards my car, while bullets were whizzing everywhere. I could hear someone shouting my name to tell me not to go, but I had already turned on the engine and was heading towards the road to Hama.
“On the way, people were in shock and there were deafening shouts everywhere. I sped ahead towards Dablan street, which leads to the clock tower from the other side. Children, men and women of all ages were running away in all directions.
“I stopped the car and people got in, and then I drove in the opposite direction to get them to a safe place; I don’t know how many times I repeated that, but as I was driving the car was hit and I started crying, even wailing, and I couldn’t see where I was driving anymore. I don’t know how many times I drove back and forth, and I can’t remember the number of people who got in my car.
“I felt I was about to fall apart; the only thing I remember is being in the street in front of my house, where people were pulling me out of the car while I was shivering and crying in a very bizarre way.
“The shooting went on until dawn, and I just kept crying hysterically, feeling an indescribable sense of defeat. It was a decisive moment; I felt that these assassins had to be killed.
“In the morning, the sun heralded a new glory for the city, but the new day’s pride could not cover its cruelty.”
That raid left behind dozens of casualties, while hundreds more were either arrested or went missing, not to mention the overwhelming feeling of terror and oppression that settled over those who survived. Since then, Homs has been racing against the clock in order to create a political change.
“I still don’t feel that the [Syrian] National Council is viable,” he said. “It could be due to the fact that we on the ground, we feel time is passing very slowly on a political level. For months on end, every time I went home I would find myself washing my friends’ blood from my hands and clothes, and then sitting in front of the television looking for news announcing a final agreement and a new system that represents the Syrian revolution.”
I asked Majd whether he supported the militarisation of the revolution in the face of the cruel reality the city is facing every day, and the current lack of any political solution for this crisis.
“I’m scared by that thought,” he replied. “I am torn between my wish to see a civil state in Syria, where each individual belongs to no entity other than their country, and wanting to see this killing end at any cost, even if it means militarising the revolution. I would be lying if I said that I did not think of carrying arms after my comrades were killed.
“But what stops me from doing it is my certainty that whoever I will kill is none other than a Syrian citizen, and with him [I would kill] the dream for which I joined the revolution.”