After a loud night fueled by the sound of warplanes zipping from Al-Qusayr airport to northern rural Homs, the latter's population awakes to the sound of birds that—unlike half of the population (1.5 million before 2011, according to the BBC)—did not leave the city.
There are no recent statistics indicating precisely how many people are left. However, new photographs and video recordings have revealed the enormous devastation surrounding the city from every direction, depicting Homs as a ghost town. But amid the destruction, there is life. Four out of 15 neighborhoods in the city of black stones are still standing, after over five years of death and displacement.
Morning Lines in Homs
Life begins early in Homs, driven by the early risers that leave to stand in various lines for various purposes.
A queue for bread, in which people of all ages and social groups gather at random and await their daily bread for long hours.
Another queue forms before ATM machines, where employees await to withdraw their monthly salaries. This queue begins minutes after the clock points to 4:00 am.
Line by line, people wait for the employees who feed the machines. The electricity might be cut off, forcing the machines out of business, but not the people standing in their lines—they wait and the queue grows. Oftentimes, the machines run out of cash. The queues grow, and the waiting times extend, as people await the employees to feed the machines again.
But the worst queue is for gas.
In the residential construction area southwest of Homs, two gas stations stand, alternating shifts. The station that opens on a Saturday closes on Sunday, and vice versa.
Parked cars can extend to the horizon. Forced into creative solutions, the residents of Homs split the cars in the city into two categories according to their plate numbers; odds and even, and divided the weekdays so that each of the two categories have days to fill up their gas.
The Many Issues of Electricity
The lines for gas are not restricted to cars only. Some ensure the same long wait to obtain the gas they use for running electricity generators to help fill out some of the hours of blackouts, which sometimes extend for 17 hours per day.
The electricity crisis in Homs gets more severe in the dead of winter and the hot summer, when the demand on electricity rises.
A 40-year old woman, Ghana, says: “There were days when my children and I cried from the cold.”
Elsewhere in the city, Shadi, who renovated his house before the war, regrets using modern heating systems, which rely on electricity and fuel. He says that if he had maintained the traditional heating system, it would have been better now. "I thought we were becoming more civilized," he said. "Now, there is no civilization left."
In the early days of war, Shadi fired coal in the living room to keep his three children warm. He eventually gave up later and brought an engineer to redesign the house and dig a chimney in one of the walls.
City of Barriers and Walls
Against the backdrop of the sluggish morning queues, the bustle of morning begins with school busses and employees going to work.
It is only in these moments that Homs looks anything, even if for a short while, like any other place in the world. But even the hints of life are impeded by concrete walls rising up to three meters high and blocking the majority of sub-streets that lead to inhabited neighborhoods. The aim of these otherwise pointless walls is to force cars into taking specific roads, each leading to checkpoints.
These barriers have taken root in the minds of residents. A person's house is known as the house two blocks after the Samsung Wall, named after a nearby Samsung shop.
Small prefabricated rooms, each less than one square meter. After over five years in their places, these checkpoints have become to be known for specific features. Here is a barrier where many have disappeared. And there is another known for safety. Another has since become a theatre for bombing scenes.
These checkpoints are guarded by armed soldiers, most of them young men serving their mandatory military service. They wait for the passers-by. One look at their faces will tell you the type of person they are. A soldier who feels caged—hopeless, waiting for the day when his service ends. Others appear as though they have finally found the power they have long sought in that position; giving orders and imposing their authority, fashioning themselves, briefly, into the most important decision makers at that checkpoint.
Dima is a 40-year-old lady who works in a charity day care for the children who lost their parents to the war. She refuses to use the word orphan in referring to them. She leaves to work in the morning with her children and husband. Despite the fatigue caused by her work outside the home, it is still the only gleam of hope in an otherwise dark life.
She speaks proudly of her work, saying that the daycare is based on the concept that one child cares for another. This means that children who still enjoy the presence of their parents pay a premium to attend the daycare center, to cover part of the cost of hosting a parent-less child. Most of the children she deals with, if not all, suffer behavioral disorders in differing intensity, as a result of the turbulent life they lead.
Her children attend a public school, in which the small classrooms have become overcrowded with double the students, now hosting 40 children per class, instead of 20.
But the crowded schools is only a minor problem, in Dima's opinion, compared to the problem of sudden and rapid demographic change they witness on a daily basis. Overcrowded classes and the demographic changes form the reality of Homs today. Nothing remains except for four neighborhoods. These four neighborhoods are witnessing unprecedented density, drawing together all social classes, each struggling to survive in a pursuit for space and existence—just like the classrooms.
Classrooms today are a mixture of students of different background and educational levels. Dima says that distinguished students can never find an opportunity to prove themselves in the presence of other, less-advanced students. She notes that her children hear and live in a society of contradictory actions and attitudes.
24 hours in the life of a Homs resident
The ever-changing faces of life in Homs
"Neither the streets, nor the people, nor even the country is the same," Ghana says, describing the city. She spends her days taking care of household duties, as well as her husband and three children. In the evenings, she gives private lessons to the students—a role she took on during the war. Residents of the building where she lived for years have changed. Lifelong neighbors have been displaced, and replaced by new faces. Among the new residents are those that Ghana describes as “Shabiha”—that is, those who walk into the building with their weapons on display, and walk out of it to a frequently changing luxurious car. Among her neighbors is also an older man who now cares for cats after his only son passed away in the war.
Mujaddara Seven Days a Week
The real crisis for the people of Homs today is the economic situation. The steady depreciation of the currency remains helpless against price hikes. The average employee salary is in the range of 20,000 to 30,000 Syrian pounds ($33-$50), barely sustaining their livelihood until mid-month.
Dima says she would buy medicine at 1,000 pounds today, but a day later would find that the price has doubled to 2,000 pounds. "My salary is equivalent to the cost of trousers for my eight-year old son," she says. "There is not enough for milk and diapers for my baby."
Dima sorrowfully notes that both she and her husband were once considered middle class, but not anymore.
A meal of Mujaddara consists of cooked lentils together with rice, and garnished with sautéed onions. The cost to cook a meal of mujaddara that would be sufficient for the whole family is between 900 and 1,000 pounds. This means that the family income does not suffice to provide them with cheap meal until the end of the month. Meat has become a luxury that very few dare to dream of. The price per kilogram has surged to 3,000 Syrian pounds. The only thing left for some people are their savings, or what remains after they were eroded over the past years. Those who do not have enough resort to charity organizations and humanitarian foundations that offer in-kind aid and medical assistance every now and then.
A Visit to the Doctor
Healthcare poses a whole new set of hurles. Shadi describes the hospitals as slaughterhouses. Economic, social, and dire security conditions have taken their toll on the health sector. There is an acute shortages in staff and resources. Homs' doctors have left the city, with only a handful left.
Dima recounts the time when her then two-month-old infant was ill, and how she refused to admit him to a hospital even though a doctor insisted. She says that his chances for survival at home were better than in a hospital deprived of care, attention, and supplies.
The area where Shadi’s company is has recently been marked as a target. A recent explosion struck only 25 meters from his building. He parks his car some distance from the office, in a location with an easy exit in case of emergency. His only sense of normalcy when he is busy with work—pressure is his escape from a country in war.
He does not believe there is a future for himself and his children outside of Homs. He even blames his friends who fled the country. "I was shocked and traumatized, I even cried sometimes, but I refused to leave.”
Even now, Shadi refuses to renew his expired passport, to avoid the latent temptation of leaving.
Every day, after picking up his children from school, he deliberately drives through the most decrepit areas in historic old Homs. They look from the windows. Silence and pain take over their minds.
There are little things that make him happy. Things like the traditional wedding procession he saw before on Hamra Street—the first one he has seen in five years. He spontaneously joined the procession, following the cars happily and sounding the horns in delight. He was jubilant over the wedding of two strangers.
Meanwhile, Ghana sneak peaks at the outside world through WhatsApp and social media in chat groups with her displaced siblings. Desperately, she tries to convince them to visit the city during the summer for a wedding—but in vain.
Caution and fear pushes her and her friends in Homs to periodically remove pictures and conversations from their phones, no matter how innocent or personal. One can never know when the phone will be inspected by someone who may use anything as an indictment against them.
A Pursuit of Normalcy at Dusk
As dusk falls, in an attempt to feel normal, Shadi takes his family to the nearby church, which has come to resemble a social club, gathering people to meet. Shadi and his wife have met new friends over the past five years, with whom they share their concerns.
Dima spends the last part of her day studying with her children and preparing for the next day.
As for Ghana, she visits her elderly parents, only to find them in the same situation in which she left them the night before—as though time has stopped in their house. Her father suffers silently from erosive arthritis, while her mother performs the maghrib prayer. The mother tries to downplay the burden her daughter is suffering and convince her that the future will be brighter. Ghana responds sadly with a verse from a Fayrouz song about a tomorrow that never comes.
Names were changed to protect the speakers’ safety in Homs.