07/02/12 #Syria The deserted streets of Douma
Beirut. Vukovar. Grozny. Sarajevo. Mogadishu. And now Homs.
This large city, two smooth hours up the dual carriageway from Damascus, now the latest in history’s long line of towns and cities whose very name conjures images of pulverised concrete and people, across our relatively peaceful planet.
It is the essence of news to focus on what has gone wrong. And that constant focus throws a surprise or two when you complete the journey from the capital.
What confronts, upon arrival at Homs, is a road from Damascus vision and thus not what you’ve been led to expect. Well, not at first.
Of course, there’s a Syrian army checkpoint on the southern fringe of Homs, but it’s the only one you’ll meet right now all the way from the capital (which also has them).
All around are perfectly normal-looking districts of high-density blocks of flats of half a dozen floors. Satellite dishes, window boxes full of flowers, you’re surprised to see.
The first morning we drove in, children played on swings in a park. The municipal sprinklers tended the lawns and open spaces, shimmering miniature rainbows in the low eastern sun.
At crossroads, traffic police in brilliant-white shirts and helmets whistle in equal petulance and futility at vehicles which move rather better when they up and leave at the end of their shift.
Here’s a man on an old-style sit-up-and-beg bicycle, one hand on the handlebars, the other round his giggling granddaughter, perhaps a couple of years old.
Buses drop and collect people coming to and from their places of work.
And yet…all the while the distant (and sometimes not all that distant) crack of a high-velocity bullet. Or perhaps a burst, six or eight rounds loosed off.
To the west, the flare stack from the large oil refinery burns away against a backdrop of the western mountains which mark the smugglers’ routes over the frontier to Lebanon. Filthy tankers line up normally outside the refinery gates. Workers pass to and fro.
In town I have a moment to grab a haircut at the Safir hotel. Of an evening, the grilled fish and chilled white wine come highly recommended.
And yet…the only guests here appear to be the Channel 4 News correspondent, cameraman and translator. The barber has little custom beyond tidying me up. And besides us, the guests are UN monitors from Scandinavia, Francophone Africa and Ireland. Outside, the pool is empty, save a couple of feet of green, stagnant rainwater. Soldiers with AK 47s have a sandbagged position out here.
In the Palestinian quarter in the south of the city, though, every shop in the bazaar is open as normal. We pass a pleasant half-hour picking up a local phone and card in one of the shops.
Tea is produced and they tell me it’s busier than ever here. Why? And then comes a rich irony of this war: people have moved here to escape the fighting in town. They reckon it’s safest here.
There it is: Syrian refugees moving to the Palestinian refugee camp for safety in their own land, their own city.
After some time you begin to see it’s not all that normal below the surface. The traffic, they say, is nothing compared to “before this trouble”. Look again at those flats, and you see most of the shutters remain down during the day. The families have gone south to Damascus, north to Aleppo or west to the coast.
Move then, towards the city centre. Walk say, from our hotel – it’s 10 minutes at most.
You’ll cross the first busy dual carriageway. More of those irrelevant traffic police, making no change with the Acme Thunderer or regional equivalent.
Cross and head right – and suddenly the road ahead is quite empty. Cars are directed elsewhere but the drivers all seem to know anyway. You notice soldiers now. Sandbags and serious-looking checkpoints are suddenly clear. You get waved away.
“Sir – not safe! Not safe!”
You’ve come to the beginning of the end of government control. 100 yards on or so, and a final checkpoint – or lookout, since nobody ever passes this way to be checked.
Here, the first signs of bullet marks splattering the walls, taking out the windows of long-shut shops, offices and flats above. Silence. Then the unmistakeable crump of a shell exploding, far more urgent, nearer and more menacing here in the deserted streets marking the entry into no-man’s land.
There is clearly no safe way to cross. Only ways which might be a little safer – but nobody knows.
We made it sitting in the back of a Red Crescent ambulance heading across to collect bodies. This was not good for morale but offered at least some protection, politically or morally, though evidently not physically.
The ambulance has a bullet hole in the middle of the front windscreen and two in the side next to the treatment area.
From the window you pass the dead zone of the wrecked tower block: blue facade, smashed windows, once the city centre hotel. The mosque across the road crumpled by heavy weaponry.
Palm-trees blown from the soil into roads. Street lamps cut in half. Stray cats. Piles of rotting and sometimes smouldering rubbish up barely passable side-streets.
It’s been so long now in Homs – 11 months, they’ll tell you here – that weeds grown in the gutters and any tarmac cracks are now a couple of feet high. Nature peacefully colonising a broken landscape of extreme violence.
Then suddenly, just as you cross the square, a young man on a motorbike – so often the first sign of life when you cross the lines to rebel-held Syria. One bike becomes two, then five. You are beckoned forward urgently.
You’re across. You’re still alive. You’re now entering “free Syria”.
It is not the Homs we’ve left behind just half a mile south at most. Life and buildings are shattered this side. The heavy weapons of Homs are fired one way only, from the Syrian army into these areas, and it shows.
So let me leave you now, as I have left Homs and Syria, with two abiding images. Two groups of young men. Two worlds. Either side of no-man’s-land.
In the rebel-held frontline area a group of men approaches our camera, all red-eyed, wild, near-hysterical. They scream about incoming shells, the death, the maiming. They shout about chemical weapons, and a tank shell is produced, then a rocket fin, and another and another…
The urge to tell, to show whatever they perceived their reality to be, is pathological, an imperative, a need. We can find no evidence of chemical shells, nor can the UN monitors.
And then, less than half a mile from these men, their fellow Syrians, gathering, open-mouthed and pointing, at the viewfinder as our camera plays back in the hotel lobby.
They’re hushed. Amazed to see streets so close but from a different, shut-off world. They’re calm, clean, far from the wired, shell-shocked world so near.
But each, utterly uncomprehending now, of the daily world the other lives, in one place, one city, one Homs.
CNN senior photojournalist Neil Hallsworth films an oil fire in Homs, Syria.
Editor’s note: Watch the full documentary “72 Hours Under Fire” on CNN International on Saturday at 4 a.m., 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. and Sunday at 6 a.m., and on CNN U.S. on Sunday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. and Monday at 2 a.m. (All times Eastern)
(CNN) — Intense black smoke billowing from the flames of an oil fire blocks out the sun. A teenage mom with a one-day-old baby seeks shelter in a dimly-lit basement from a barrage of missiles and shells.
Incoming fire smashes through the wall of a house being used as an unofficial media center in Homs, the city that is the focus of anti-regime protests and Syrian efforts to silence them.
The horror of enduring the all-out assault by the Syrian military is brought vividly to life in a CNN documentary airing this weekend.
With the help of local activists, a CNN crew was smuggled into Homs, moving from house to house as the Syrian army fired missiles and tank shells.
For more than a year President Bashar al-Assad’s military had used brutal force to put down the uprising.
Across Syria, protesters demanded change — chanting “down with the regime” but it was Homs — and especially the neighborhood of Baba Amr — that became the epicenter.
Even CNN correspondent Arwa Damon, with her vast experience of reporting from war zones, had reservations about the high-risk job. She said: “I actually wrote a letter home the first time, to my family. And I went to see some very close friends as well, just in case.”
She was joined by Neil Hallsworth, a veteran cameraman who has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel, and Tim Crockett, a former special forces officer to handle security and who would also become an unofficial stills photographer.
Just getting into Homs was an ordeal that took five days for what would normally be a two-hour drive.
Damon said: “It involves a fairly elaborate process of being moved through farmlands, back roads, trying to avoid the government, ending up in various safe houses. And at every single leg, every single stop, you have a different person who’s responsible to move you on to the next one, someone who knows the details of the lay of the land around you to ensure that they can actually get you through from one point to another.”
For the thousands trapped in Baba Amr, the route was their only lifeline and CNN agreed to keep it secret.
In Homs, there was no frontline meaning there was also nowhere that could be called safe.
Damon said: “It [seems] mostly deserted, most of the buildings have sustained some sort of damage. And then you’ll see a kid peek their head out from a doorway, or you’ll see a man walking in the street carrying an A.K.”
Some of the most constant fire has been on Baba Amr where people are killed or wounded daily, and where two doctors — and one of those was a dentist — are fighting against the odds to help the casualties.
In a makeshift clinic there was a man with head injuries from shrapnel, another whose leg injury was most likely going to lead to an amputation.
The medics say the Syrian military regards the clinic as a target so they have set up in numerous temporary houses around Baba Amr, each with patients and with the doctors moving between them.
But snipers posted on rooftops above the rubble-littered streets made even the shortest of trips treacherous.
Mosques put out messages before the bombardment started, telling people to not live on the upper floors, to try to stay away from windows, and to try to find protective rooms, inside their homes.
In basements used as bunkers, civilians pray the next bomb will miss their home and their loved ones. In one of these bunkers, the CNN crew met a teenager who had given birth the day before.
Her daughter Fatimah was the face of innocence amid the hell of Homs. Her father does not know she’s been born. He left the shelter to get supplies a month ago and has not made it back. And her gran trembled as she explained how two other relatives died.
Virtually everyone in the shelter — about 300 people — had similar horrific stories of violent death.
And it was easy to learn how death could come arbitrarily and suddenly in Homs and how survival was as much luck as anything else.
Working in a home that had become an unofficial media center for the few Western journalists that have made it into Homs, a rocket slammed into the building just two floors up.
Also in Baba Amr was Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin who would be killed alongside French photographer Remi Ochlik just a few days later.
Throughout Baba Amr, word was spreading that a ground offensive by the Syrian military was imminent.
And for CNN it was becoming too dangerous to let Damon, Hallsworth and Crockett stay.
Damon said: “It is fundamentally unfair that we live in a world where we can go film this, report on it, and leave, knowing that the people we’ve left behind’s suffering is going to continue. Feeling as if we should’ve done more, we could’ve done more.”
Hundreds of civilians are believed to have died in the siege of Baba Amr. At least three activists involved in getting video out of Baba Amr have been killed.
At the end of February, the Syrian military broke the resistance of Baba Amr. Opposition activists claim the military carried out summary executions.
Regime forces continue to bombard other areas that oppose Assad’s rule.