Homs Governor Ghassan abdul-Al said a military presence is necessary in Homs to ensure public safety. (Photo: Abdullah Bozkurt)
This writer joined some 30 foreign reporters from Turkey, Japan, Germany, Austria and Algeria. The trip was carefully choreographed by the Ministry of Information, and it was obvious that the places visited were selected to project the government’s version of events that have unfolded since mid-March. Nevertheless, it gave some clues as to what is happening on the ground as the Syrian government has long denied the entry of foreign journalists into the country.
On the 100-mile stretch from Damascus to Homs, there were no visible tanks or heavy artillery munitions located on either side of the highway. Yet, the voyage was interrupted several times by army checkpoints. There were some sandbagged army posts with soldiers carrying machine guns positioned at the entry to Homs. Homs governor Ghassan abdul-Al defended the army presence as “being there to ensure public safety.”
But in the city, traffic was hectic as usual, garbage was piled up in the middle of roads and people seemed to be attending to their business. There was nothing out of ordinary on the path we were taken along to visit places, though intelligence officials were quick to disperse crowds gathering around the reporters and TV crewmen.
Reporters were taken to inspect what the guides said was an indication of the volume of destruction and sabotage of public places by people whom they described as “insurgents and terrorists.”In the Homs National Hospital, called Vatan and located in a rundown district of the city, Gassan Tannusi, the hospital manager, showed a triage room on the first floor that had bullet marks in the walls and ceilings. “The shot came from outside,” he said, pointing to a window’s broken glass and showing the trajectory of a bullet.
He said the insurgents fired at the hospital to put pressure on personnel to evacuate the building, thus cutting off medical supplies. Though he did not say anything, there were visible bullet marks in the empty first floor of another building across from the hospital, indicating there had been an exchange of fire between the two buildings. It was difficult to verify what the hospital manager said without accounts from witnesses.
It was interesting to note that no patients were seen in the hospital even though an emergency stretcher with fresh bloodstains was parked in a corner of the hospital. The hospital was in very poor shape. The rusty window grills blocked the sunlight from the rooms. Paintings on the wall had peeled away here and there, the dirt was visible everywhere. Soldiers in full-armed gear were hauled away as the reporters were about to enter the hospital.
In contrast, the Homs Military Hospital was in better shape, and reporters were given access to wounded soldiers receiving treatment there. All of the patients were delivering the same scripted stories and labeling insurgents foreign agents who want to destabilize the country. Amin Baddul, a 27-year-old private, got shot when his patrol came under attack from insurgent groups crossing from the Lebanese border. “It was a shooting by masked men in blue jeans. I got a bullet in my leg, and my two friends got killed in the shootout,” he said. Teysir Sheadi Tariff was standing by the bed of his 27-year-old son, wounded by gunshots to both legs. He told a similar nationalistic tale.
The group was later taken to an Alawi neighborhood in the Akrame district, where it met with a cheering crowd of some 100 people, who were chanting pro-Assad slogans and holding pro-army placards. People with pictures of loved ones who got kidnapped, murdered or wounded were asking reporters to convey their stories to an international audience. It was obvious the meeting was well-planned by government officials, with video-footage of what officials describe as the brutal murders of Alawis by Sunni insurgents.
Reja Hayek, an OB/GYN specialist, said the situation is very tense in the Homs neighborhood where Alawis live in fear from Sunni insurgents. “Both groups have started to arm themselves. The army is here to protect us from the terrorists. All the terrorists are Sunnis,” she claimed. Describing herself as an Alawi and an atheist at the same time, Hayek, educated in Turkey in late 70s, is thinking of going back to Turkey for safety and security. Although organizers of this meeting said the reporters were welcome to knock on the door of any house in this Alawi neighborhood, the request to have access to a Sunni neighborhood was denied. It seems the seeds of a potential civil war along sectarian lines are growing in Homs, which is made up primarily of Sunni Muslims but has Alawi Muslim, Greek Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Christian minorities.
If anything useful came out of the trip, it was during the question-and-answer session with Homs governor Ghassan abdul-Al. Even though he was evasive and denied most things in his responses to reporters’ questions, the Homs governor gave indications of what is happening in this province. He said there is no dialogue taking place with insurgents because they want to topple the government. “No government anywhere in the world would accept that,” he said, stressing that insurgents’ demands have nothing to do with reforms.
He said government forces have seized cars full of arms and ammunition coming from over the Lebanese and Turkish borders. “I do not claim that the governments of Lebanon or Turkey are involved in these shipments. Smugglers and arms dealers are exploiting this situation,” he said, adding that without financial resources, insurgents cannot buy these weapons.
The Homs governor acknowledged that government forces may have shot at civilians but said this has happened in high-density areas while fighting is taking place between army soldiers and insurgents. “Civilians may have been caught in the middle,” he argued. Ghassan said the government set up a judicial committee to investigate deliberate or accidental killings of civilians by security personnel. He declined to give the number of convictions or investigations into these killings.
The Homs governor said 415 soldiers and 503 civilians have been killed in the province by insurgents, while 324 kidnappings have been reported. Asked about the reports of kidnappings by security forces, Ghassan said, “We call them political prisoners, not kidnappings.” According to him, 3,707 causalities have been recorded across Syria since the unrest began in March. “Since then, 2,100 police and army soldiers have been killed,” he added.