The Syrian city of Homs once woke to the call to prayer echoing from the historic Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque. Now the mosque (like many others) is destroyed, and the city wakes to the sounds of mortar shelling and gunfire.
Big Al Brand hears it every day, and sees its results. “Homs is ruined, the city and the people combined,” says the 29-year-old blogger, who goes by his first name, Alaa. “I walk around some areas and I don’t recognize the city anymore.”
Online, Alaa chronicled many of those changes and the tragedies associated with them. He became quite well known on social networks, but with that fame came other concerns. Now, for his personal safety, he has closed down all the internet outlets he once used to express himself to the public. But he still observes and still notes the changes in his home city. He is still willing to share his thoughts via email.
Living in a Civil War
Life in Homs drastically changed since the Syrian uprising broke out, he explains. Students, for example, go through multiple checkpoints every day to reach university. Some students, he reports, are taken by security forces while on campus. “In bad days, they skip going, but on exam days they go no matter what,” says Alaa.
Prior to the war, he adds, students safely used public transport to travel across the city. There were no checkpoints, disputed territories, or rebels to the regime. They often socialized in humble cafes between classes. Attending classes was not life-threatening. Now the pressures of school include the possibility of being abducted or killed.
Going to the market to purchase necessities is another struggle. Homs once had a vibrant vegetable and fruit market, Alaa remembers, where shopping was a social experience that involved “talking and swapping stories” while finding the best prices. Now, however, sidewalks in less volatile areas have turned into shops.
“Most salesmen lost their stores and moved to these neighborhoods and started selling their goods on the streets,” says Alaa. Some even created tents made of sticks and clothes shielding them from the sun, and on worse days, snipers.
Celebrations and gatherings are as rare as a black swan. “Every day there are martyrs in Homs,” he remarks. “Celebrating anything is very rude. When two people get married, they do it quietly and quickly.”
Nevertheless, neighbors find solace in one another whenever an opportunity occurs. Outages and hardships are often the catalyst for these moments. “We now talk a lot [to our neighbors] because we are always trying to fix things or find solutions since power, water, and phones keep dying on us all,” he says.
Memories Turned into Ashes
Buildings die too. The house he grew up in Homs “was hit by multiple shells last year,” he explains. “Most of it has turned into debris.” The building was located in Jorat Al Shayyah, a district that was under siege for more than 100 days in late 2012. It is barely recognizable now.
“I have great memories in that place,” he reminisces. “We had strawberry plants that I used to pick and eat from. There was also a little shop nearby that I often frequented to buy candy.” As a child, he watched that building go up. Decades later he heard of its destruction.
Death Lurks in Every Corner
Despite the situation in Homs, he refuses to leave. In a way, he says, residents have come to terms with their new life and the frequent specter of death.
“Death is our companion and friend. We see it every day, we face it every day. Many still fear it, some welcome it, and others seek it.”
He acknowledges that after 900 days of civil war, “I don’t have any friends here anymore. Some were killed, others left the country, and some left the city.”
“The first friend I lost was in Ramadan of 2011. Adnan Abduldayem, he was such a nice guy. Then Jamal Al Fatwa, a pharmacist, died under torture. There was also Amer Drak-Sibaie who worked with the Red Crescent. Rami Safwi also was killed by a sniper. I lost many more. I also lost relatives, including an entire family.”
Alaa does praise the resilience of the people of Homs. In the far future perhaps, the city will return to its former vibrance, he adds, and the ruins like those of the Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque will be rebuilt. But meanwhile, the people of Homs increasingly accept a situation Alaa likens to “a dream, a horrible dream that isn't ending.”
And he signs his email with an apology.
This article was written in memory of Adnan Abduldayem, Jamal Al Fatwa, Rami Safwi, and Amer Drak-Sibaie.