A scarred city that bears the wounds of war
Updated: 2012-05-17 08:08
By Li Lianxing (China Daily)
The charred remains of a child's book are displayed to highlight that children were among the victims of twin blasts in Damascus, the Syrian capital, on May 10. The blasts claimed dozens of lives. Li Lianxing / China Daily
1. A photograph supplied by the Syrian Arab News Agency shows smoke rising from burning cars at the site of two blasts in Damascus on May 10, 2012. The powerful explosions, in quick succession, rocked the Syrian capital during the morning rush hour, killing 55 people, according to the State television service.
2. A main road in Damascus damaged by the two explosions on May 10.
3. Anti-regime protestors talk to a UN observer in the village of Azzara in Homs on May 4. Syria's parliamentary polls on May 7, against a backdrop of unrest.
4. A Syrian national flag flying from a ruined house, previously used as a food store in Homs.
5. Security forces and civilians inspect the damage near the site of the May 10 explosions in Damascus. The powerful blasts, detonated in quick succession, rocked the Syrian capital.
6. Women cast ballot papers bearing the names of "martyrs" in symbolic coffin-like ballot boxes, during an anti-election demonstration in the city of al-Qusayr, 15 km from Homs in restive central Syria, on May 7, as polling stations opened across the country for the first "multiparty" vote in five decades. The opposition dismissed the elections as a sham and refused to participate.
Nowhere has fighting been more intense, nor destruction so complete, reports Li Lianxing in Homs, Syria.
Obtaining approval to visit Homs wasn't easy. The Syrian Ministry of Information, which had invited two researchers, some other Chinese journalists and me to observe the country's first multiparty parliamentary elections in five decades, said it couldn't guarantee our safety in the war-torn city.
"The fighting is still going on there and although the number of incidents has been greatly reduced, we are deeply concerned about any possible threats to your safety," said our guide, known only as Hassain, speaking almost a month after a cease-fire, brokered by the United Nations, came into force.
The first batch of UN observers, to monitor a six-point peace plan initiated by UN envoy Kofi Annan, were deployed in April and, in total, 300 military observers are expected to be in position by the end of this month.
The cease-fire has been broken by both sides and, as usual, civilians have been the main casualties. We felt that it was vital to observe the situation on the ground and gain first-hand experience of the aftermath of these urban battles. However, it was difficult to get a sense of a country in the throes of civil war because at 10 pm all the shops and restaurants were still open for trade.
Finally, in the last few minutes of election day on May 7, we were told that our application to visit the city had been approved and that we would leave the next day. At 8 am, our car duly left the hotel, followed by another carrying five heavily armed security guards.
The six-lane highway to Homs and other northern cities was busy with trucks and coaches. Hassain told us that the situation had improved recently and that people had flooded back onto the previously empty roads.
Homs is 161 km from Damascus and a key strategic position, where many oil pipelines and rail tracks converge. Since the crisis broke out in March 2011, the city has been one of the main battlegrounds between government and opposition forces.
Syria's third largest city, Homs, used to attract large numbers of tourists, keen to see its mixed Christian and Islamic heritage and peaceful co-existence. Now, an exodus by the local population has replaced commercial activities, tourism and anything approaching a normal life.
A police patrol joined our motorcade as we entered the city, and when we requested to go to the Baba Amr district, the scene of fiercest fighting during the preceding months, another group of heavily armed security guards was ordered to go with us. Although we didn't hear any gunshots or explosions, the situation appeared much more sensitive and dangerous than we had expected.
The scene that met our eyes once we had passed through the checkpoint into Baba Amr was one of utter devastation. The streets and alleyways were empty and desolate, and standing in the noiseless street, I was overwhelmed by the 30 C heat and the sights in front of me.
What I saw emphasized not only how fierce the battles have been, but also how daunting life must be for the people of the area. Not one of the houses or commercial buildings was untouched, every window of every room was shattered, the vaults of mosques displayed huge shell holes, and auto wrecks and garbage carpeted the roads. This is already a ghost city.
"Look." One of our guards pointed at a ruined house, its walls pockmarked by countless bullets holes. "This place was used for food distribution and now it's just rubble," he said.
However, people are still living among the debris, but their appearances on the streets are few and far between. The cease-fire agreement did prevent the escalation of violence but small-scale skirmishes still pose a threat to civilians, especially as the night raids against forces loyal to the Syrian government have increased, according to the governor of Homs, Ghassan Abdelaal.
He said a lack of leadership among the opposition groups and what he described as the "dual identity" of their fighters prevented them from gaining total control of this area. "They are civilians in the daytime and become militants when they take up arms at night," he said. "We don't want to kill any civilians, and we are still under pressure from Western countries."
We were strictly forbidden from entering the alleyways because they are out of the guards' control. A handful of women walked swiftly down the main road. They all wore full veils and so it was impossible to tell if they were sad, terrified or just resigned. Only a few children, we saw no more than five, gave us beautiful smiles and flashed a "victory" gesture.
In the city center, an area under the control of government forces, most of the shops were closed and the air was rank with the stench of garbage. "One of the biggest problems in Homs is that the street cleaners have been killed and so no one is disposing of the trash," said the governor. "Anyone who comes out to do this job is likely to be threatened in surprise attacks."
An elderly man came to talk to us while we were waiting to discover whether we would be allowed to enter another destroyed area of the town. "I have been living in this city for 83 years and previously people were so peaceful and nice," he said. "Please, please let the violence stop and let the terrorists get out of this place."
His words underlined the fact that Syrian situation has been gradually drifting in another direction, one more daunting and challenging than the current military conflict: the specter of terrorism.
Of course, there are armed opponents of the Assad regime fighting in Syria, but, according to a number of observers, some recent attacks have shown strong indications that terrorist groups were involved. Those indications raised a wave of panic as the reality of the situation began to sink in. People realized that the conflict is not simply being played out between the government and opposition, but is developing into a more complex situation, one featuring other, more dangerous players.
We were due to fly out of Damascus on the afternoon of May 10. However, before we left the country, we were able to witness the aftermath of two massive explosions that occurred on the main road to the airport during the morning rush hour.
When the separate blasts came at around 8:00 am, we were having breakfast at a hotel in the city center. Although we were 10 km from the explosions, we still heard them.
Later, we were told that we could visit the site, an office of the Syrian intelligence agency, so we stopped packing and drove to the scene. By the time we arrived, the UN workers investigating the site had already left the area.
What first caught my eye was the shattered glass from a brand new Audi SUV parked 100 meters from the epicenter of the explosion, but the damage closer to the craters was much more daunting.
Dozens of taxies, coaches and vans had been twisted into empty, black structures, glass and blood covered the road and the front wall of the 11-story building was missing. Approximately 30 meters from the building, there were two craters in the asphalt road. The bigger of the two was approximately 15 meters wide and 3 meters deep.
The dead and wounded had already been sent to mortuaries and hospitals, and at first the locals were dazed and quiet as they busily cleared away the scorched fragments and searched through the debris.
Later, however, the crowd became more agitated and repeatedly shouted slogans in support of the unification of the Syrian people and against Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two countries in the forefront of recent criticism of the Syrian authorities.
A middle-aged man raised his hand and showed me a muddy drawing book and a half-burned schoolbag of the size carried by kids attending kindergarten or primary school. "Look, how brutal they are! Do you know how many innocent children were just on the way to school?" he demanded, unable to control his emotions.
It later emerged that the first blast had been triggered to draw security guards and civilians to the area. Once a crowd had gathered, a much larger bomb was detonated, killing at least 55 people and injuring hundreds. It was the sort of attack that's become the hallmark of al-Qaeda.
The blasts followed a previous bombing at a checkpoint in the southern city of Daraa, just after a UN convoy had passed through. No UN observers were hurt in the attack, but several Syrian soldiers and journalists sustained injuries.
According to the Associated Press, the United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the US has intelligence indicating that there is an al-Qaeda presence in Syria, but he gave no clear information about numbers, influence or activities.
An uncertain future
The future remains uncertain for the people of Syria. We were invited to observe the multiparty parliamentary elections, part of President Bashar Assad's series of political reforms, following on from a vote on a new constitution held three months ago. However, whether that reform process will help to ameliorate the crisis remains unclear.
The elections went smoothly in a general sense. Nearly 200 representatives from neighboring countries and emerging economies were divided into groups to attend different polling stations.
We went to eight stations in all, a number at our own request, and not at the suggestion of our minders. The people we met in the polling stations were reasonably supportive of the reform process after some opposition groups both inside and outside the country boycotted the elections, just as they did the recent vote on the new constitution.
When the people spoke about the problems the country faces, the one most frequently mentioned was corruption. However, as a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in our group observed, the crux of the crisis has little to do with the ongoing political reforms, because many Western countries and Syria's regional enemies would refuse to recognize a new constitution, while it will take time for the reforms to have any real impact on the lives of the general populace.
Syria is a highly secularized Arabic state and the prospects for further secularization and democratization hinge on religious pressures. The minorities, including Christians and members of the Alawi and Druze sects, fear that if a Muslim brotherhood were to assume power it would hamper the process of secularization. That means political reform is key to the future.
The UN mission has been seen as the last chance to solve the Syrian problem politically, but it has been seriously challenged in terms of security and no one can say if it will succeed. When asked what the government would do if the UN mission were to fail, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told me that the authorities would insist on further political reform and allow the people to decide their own future.
Contact the reporter at email@example.com
(China Daily 05/17/2012 page1)