It wasn’t a normal day for the people of Homs. On 18 April, 2011, the city seemed to witness a rebirth. Demonstrations against the regime took place in most neighbourhoods and walls were spray-painted with slogans saying, “We want freedom.”
But the next day, as usual, I went in the morning to my job in central Homs, where I was working as a radiographer in a medical centre overlooking the old clock square.
I learned that there would be a funeral procession for seven of the martyrs of the Bab al-Saba’a neighbourhood. They had died after regime forces fired live bullets at the demonstrations. I went along.
Pain and sadness were clear on people’s faces. The funeral procession was headed to the cemetery. Crowds streamed along, shouting, “La ilaha illallah, God loves martyrs.” Due to the dramatic scenes, life in the al-Hamidiya neighbourhood stood still.
I watched what was happening, hiding my emotions because alongside me stood a work colleague who I knew was a supporter of President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. She said about the martyrs, “I don’t grieve for them, this is their punishment because they ruined the country.”
I was afraid to say something to her, I felt I might slap her and reveal that I supported the revolution. That would mean prison.
So I went back to the radiography room and opened my Facebook account on my mobile phone. I found that a friend had contacted me to tell me about a sit-in in the square after the funeral.
This news gave me hope. I found an excuse to leave the centre before the end of the day and walked to the square. My heart was beating fast because I was afraid that someone might discover what I was doing. I felt like I was being watched.
In the square, I met my friends and demonstrators began to gather. The crowds increased rapidly, as if people had been waiting impatiently for this day.
The tyrant had been shaken by our unity, that’s how the sit-in felt. Meals and water had been organised for the demonstrators and the chants and flags of the revolution rose together until Sheikh Mahmoud Dalati took to the pulpit. He was one of the most prominent clerics in Homs and had joined the ranks of the demonstrators.
He gave a speech asking young people to keep to the peacefulness of the revolution saying, “We are here to demand our rights and we do not want to harm any of the other religions.”
This took place in the afternoon and as soon as the time of the evening maghrib prayer was over, regime forces began to gather a few meters away from the demonstrators.
The young men asked the women to go home. I agreed as I wanted to post online about the sit-in.
I went back to home and uploaded my videos. Time went by and the sit-in continued.
It was almost two o’clock in the morning when the city erupted. We heard the sound of heavy gunfire.
The mosques reported injuries among the protesters who remained in the square, including Sheikh Mahmoud Dalati and another cleric, Sheikh Sahl Junaid
Alaa, the son of our neighbours, had been with me at the protest and had stayed on after I left. His mother was prostrate with fear. The night passed, with motorcycle riders roaming the city’s neighbourhoods calling for people to continue protesting against the regime.
Residents of the Alawite neighbourhood next to ours were blocking access to the area with cars and rubbish barrels for fear that something would happen to them.
Our neighbour, Abu Malik, said that we should block access to our community too. “Someone from the regime might come to blow himself up and say that the rebels are targeting the Alawites,” he said.
The internet was very weak, and cut off from outside world we didn’t know what was happening.
Morning came and Alaa’s parents got in their car to look for their son who they were yet to hear any news of. I was unable to contact any of my friends, so I went with them.
It was my duty to go and search for Alaa since only a few hours ago he he had been right by me, cheering for freedom.
“No one is allowed to cross into the city centre,” we were told by an armed member of the shabiha, the regime militia. They prevented us from continuing. The roads were blocked and there was an unofficial curfew.
Alaa’s mother screamed, “Where are you, my son?”
I suggested that we go back home so I would give Alaa’s mother a sedative. Back in the house, we continued to sit in silence.
Then a group of friends came to the neighbourhood carrying with them Alaa, the beautiful martyr.
We all came back except for Alaa, but the sounds of his calls for freedom have not been lost. The spirit of Homs’ revolutionaries still lives on.
Hanan al-Tawil is a 30-year-old radiologist from Homs who now lives in the al-Queitra countryside.