They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.
Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.
“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.
“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”
For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.
Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.
The city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.
A baby born in the basement last week looked as shellshocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-storey house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatised that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.
Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.
The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concrete-block homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random.
Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.
Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.
It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.
Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.
The Syrians have dug a huge trench around most of the district, and let virtually nobody in or out. The army is pursuing a brutal campaign to quell the resistance of Homs, Hama and other cities that have risen up against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose family has been in power for 42 years.
In Baba Amr, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed face of opposition to Assad, has virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders. It is an unequal battle: the tanks and heavy weaponry of Assad’s troops against the Kalashnikovs of the FSA.
About 5,000 Syrian soldiers are believed to be on the outskirts of Baba Amr, and the FSA received reports yesterday that they were preparing a ground assault. The residents dread the outcome.
“We live in fear the FSA will leave the city,” said Hamida, 43, hiding with her children and her sister’s family in an empty ground-floor apartment after their house was bombed. “There will be a massacre.”
On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”
Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said last week: “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.
Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. “Please tell the world they must help us,” he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. “Just stop the bombing. Please, just stop the shelling.”
The journey across the countryside from the Lebanese border to Homs would be idyllic in better times. The villages are nondescript clusters of concrete buildings on dirt tracks but the lanes are lined with cypresses and poplar trees and wind through orchards of apricot and apple trees.
These days, however, there is an edge of fear on any journey through this area. Most of this land is essentially what its residents call “Syria hurra”, or free Syria, patrolled by the FSA.
Nevertheless, Assad’s army has checkpoints on the main roads and troops stationed in schools, hospitals and factories. They are heavily armed and backed by tanks and artillery.
So a drive to Homs is a bone-rattling struggle down dirt roads, criss-crossing fields. Men cluster by fires at unofficial FSA checkpoints, eyeing any vehicle suspiciously. As night falls, flashlights waved by unseen figures signal that the way ahead is clear.
Each travelling FSA car has a local shepherd or farmer aboard to help navigate the countryside; the Syrian army may have the power, but the locals know every track of their fields.
I entered Homs on a smugglers’ route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city’s plight to the world. So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.
When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable. As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover.
The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.
Khaled Abu Salah, an activist who took part in the first demonstrations against Assad in Homs last March, sat on the floor of an office, his hand broken and bandages covering shrapnel wounds to his leg and shoulder.
A 25-year-old university student, who risked his life filming videos of the slaughter of Baba Amr residents, he narrowly escaped when he tried to get two men wounded by mortar fire to a makeshift clinic.
He and three friends had just taken the wounded to the clinic, which was staffed by a doctor and a dentist, and stepped away from the door when “a shell landed right at the entrance”, he recalled last week.
“My three friends died immediately.” The two men they had helped were also killed.
Abu Ammar, 48, a taxi driver, went out to look for bread at 8am one day last week. He, his wife and their adopted daughter had taken refuge with two elderly sisters after their home was hit by shells.
“When I returned the house was obliterated,” he said, looking at all that remained of the one-storey building. Only a few pieces of wall still stood. In the ruins a woman’s red blouse was visible; bottles of home-made pickled vegetables were somehow unscathed. “Dr Ali”, a dentist working as a doctor, said one of the women from the house had arrived at the clinic alive, but both legs had been amputated and she died.
The clinic is merely a first-floor apartment donated by the kindly owner. It still has out-of-place domestic touches: plasma pouches hang from a wooden coat hanger and above the patients a colourful children’s mobile hangs from the ceiling.
The shelling last Friday was the most intense yet and the wounded were rushed to the clinic in the backs of cars by family members.
Ali the dentist was cutting the clothes off 24-year-old Ahmed al-Irini on one of the clinic’s two operating tables. Shrapnel had gashed huge bloody chunks out of Irini’s thighs. Blood poured out as Ali used tweezers to draw a piece of metal from beneath his left eye.
Irini’s legs spasmed and he died on the table. His brother-in-law, who had brought him in, began weeping. “We were playing cards when a missile hit our house,” he said through his tears. Irini was taken out to the makeshift mortuary in a former back bedroom, naked but for a black plastic bag covering his genitals.
There was no let-up. Khaled Abu Kamali died before the doctor could get his clothes off. He had been hit by shrapnel in the chest while at home.
Salah, 26, was peppered with shrapnel in his chest and the left of his back. There was no anaesthetic, but he talked as Ali inserted a metal pipe into his back to release the pressure of the blood building up in his chest.
Helping tend the wounded was Um Ammar, a 45-year-old mother of seven, who had offered to be a nurse after a neighbour’s house was shelled. She wore filthy plastic gloves and was crying. “I’m obliged to endure this, because all children brought here are my children,” she said. “But it is so hard.”
Akhmed Mohammed, a military doctor who defected from Assad’s army, shouted: “Where are the human rights? Do we have none? Where are the United Nations?”
There were only two beds in the clinic for convalescing. One was taken by Akhmed Khaled, who had been injured, he said, when a shell hit a mosque as he was about to leave prayers. His right testicle had had to be removed with only paracetamol to dull the pain.
He denounced the Assad regime’s claim that the rebels were Islamic extremists and said: “We ask all people who believe in God — Christians, Jews, Muslims to help us!”
If the injured try to flee Baba Amr, they first have to be carried on foot. Then they are transferred to motorbikes and the lucky ones are smuggled to safety. The worst injured do not make it.
Though Syrian officials prohibit anyone from leaving, some escapees manage to bribe their way out. I met refugees in villages around Homs. Newlywed Miriam, 32, said she and her husband had decided to leave when they heard that three families had been killed and the women raped by the Shabiha militia, a brutal force led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher.
“We were practically walking on body parts as we walked under shelling overhead,” she said. Somehow they made it unscathed. She had given an official her wedding ring in order to be smuggled out to safety.
Abdul Majid, a computer science student at university, was still shaking hours after arriving in a village outside Homs. He had stayed behind alone in Baba Amr. “I had to help the old people because only the young can get out,” said Majid, 20, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He left when his entire street fled after every house was hit.
“I went to an army checkpoint that I was told was not too bad. I gave them a packet of cigarettes, two bags of tea and 500 Syrian pounds. They told me to run.”
Blasts of Kalashnikov fire rang out above his head until he reached the tree line. He said the soldiers were only pretending to try to shoot him to protect themselves, but his haunted eyes showed he was not entirely sure.
If the Syrian military rolls into Baba Amr, the FSA will have little chance against its tanks, superior weaponry and numbers. They will, however, fight ferociously to defend their families because they know a massacre is likely to follow any failure, if the past actions of the Assad regime are anything to go by.
The FSA partly relies on defections from Assad’s army because it does not accept civilians into its ranks, though they perform roles such as monitoring troop movements and transporting supplies. But it has become harder for soldiers to defect in the past month.
Abu Sayeed, 46, a major- general who defected six months ago, said every Syrian military unit was now assigned a member of the Mukhabarat, the feared intelligence service, who have orders to execute any soldier refusing an order to shoot or who tries to defect.
The army, like the country, may well be about to divide along sectarian lines. Most of the officers are members of the Alawite sect, the minority Shi’ite clan to which the Assad family belongs, while foot soldiers are Sunni.
The coming test for the army will be if its ranks hold if ordered to kill increasing numbers of their brethren.
The swathe of the country that stretches east from the Lebanon border and includes Homs is Sunni; in the villages there they say that officers ordering attacks are Alawites fighting for the Assad family, not their country.
The morale of Assad’s army, despite its superiority, is said to be low as it is poorly paid and supplied, although this information comes mostly from defectors. “The first thing we did when we attacked the house was race to the refrigerator,” said a defector.
Thousands of soldiers would be needed to retake the southern countryside. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and former president, crushed his problems with Islamic fundamentalists in 1982 by shelling the city of Hama into ruins and killing at least 10,000 men, women and children. So far his son appears to have calculated that a similar act would be a step too far for his remaining allies of Russia, China and Iran.
For now it is a violent and deadly standoff. The FSA is not about to win and its supplies of ammunition are dwindling.
The only real hope of success for Assad’s opponents is if the international community comes to their aid, as Nato did against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. So far this seems unlikely to happen in Syria.
Observers see a negotiated solution as perhaps a long shot, but the best way out of this impasse. Though neither side appears ready to negotiate, there are serious efforts behind the scenes to persuade Russia to pull Assad into talks.
As international diplomats dither, the desperation in Baba Amr grows. The despair was expressed by Hamida, 30, hiding in a downstairs flat with her sister and their 13 children after two missiles hit their home. Three little girls, aged 16 months to six years, sleep on one thin, torn mattress on the floor; three others share a second. Ahmed, 16, her sister’s eldest child, was killed by a missile when he went to try to find bread.
“The kids are screaming all the time,” Hamida said. “I feel so helpless.” She began weeping. “We feel so abandoned. They’ve given Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill us.”
Loyalties of ‘desert rose’ tested
Asma, the British-born wife of President Bashar al-Assad, may well be feeling a sense of divided loyalty as the violence continues in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family are from the area, which has been a focal point for many of the recent protests against her husband’s regime and the Syrian army’s brutal response.
Despite growing up in Acton, west London, Asma visited her family’s home in Homs every year throughout her childhood. She is also a Sunni Muslim, unlike her husband, who comes from the country’s minority Shi’ite community.
Asma, 36, has been criticised for displaying an “ostrich attitude”, keeping a low profile as the conflict has intensified. She has refused to comment on the way her husband’s regime has used tanks and other lethal means to crush protesters. In an email sent earlier this month, her office merely said: “The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with as well as rural development and supporting the President as needed.”
The daughter of a consultant cardiologist and a retired diplomat, Asma was born in London. She attended a Church of England state school in Acton and gained a BSc in computer science and a diploma in French literature from King’s College London.
She went on to work for Deutsche Bank and married Assad in Syria in 2000. Now a mother of three, she was once described by Vogue as a “rose in the desert”. In Homs, the beleaguered people may now take a different view.