Talal Barazi is seated in the pleasant outdoor restaurant of a heavily guarded hotel in Homs, or what is left of it.
“Basically, it’s Berlin after World War II,” says Barazi, who as governor of Homs province has seen much of the area under his jurisdiction destroyed by Syria’s civil war. He tries to put up a brave front.
“We have to face reality,” he says. “Some of Homs will be rebuilt, but some will have to be torn down completely. We can’t just look at all the ruins and feel sad and lament what happened.”
Much of his province’s prewar population of 2 million has fled, either to safer parts of Syria or to other countries. For those like Barazi, left behind by choice or necessity, life here has taken on a strange and ghostly air.
A recent swing through government-held areas of Syria by a Times correspondent provided ample evidence of the depopulation of a nation now defined by images of bombed-out buildings, rubble-strewn streets and refugees on the move.
Now the war has entered a new phase: Russian warplanes backing the government of President Bashar Assad are targeting rebel positions in Homs and elsewhere in Syria, the latest twist in a punishing conflict now in its fifth year.
The great majority of Syrians still live in government-controlled zones, where some semblance of normal life persists. Various armed factions hold sway in broad swaths of the country, but much of the rebel-controlled terrain is thinly populated desert.
The oft-repeated statistics — more than 4 million have left the country and 8 million are internally displaced — hardly hint at the physical and psychological demolition of Syria, once a cultural and intellectual hub of the Middle East.
Still, ever-resilient Syrians strive to maintain some shreds of social cohesion amid an overriding sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future.
Daily conversations on Skype, WhatsApp and other social media applications help people stay in touch with those scattered around the world. One exile has developed a cellphone app to show where his friends are, lights on the screen indicating far-flung locales.
“Every night we spend at least an hour on WhatsApp trying to catch up,” says Elia Samman, who runs a waste management business in Damascus, the capital, but is a native of Homs, once the country’s third-largest city.
Of nine Homs families his family was close to, he says, only three remain in Syria. The rest have left for Sweden, Germany, Egypt, Persian Gulf nations or other destinations.
One of his close friends, a successful engineer, had built his family dream house in Homs, completing it just before the war broke out.
“He was only able to live there for about 20 days, then the conflict came,” recalls Samman, who was a member of the peaceful opposition but says the movement was “hijacked” by violent extremists. “Now the place is in the hands of some opposition faction.”
Syria today is an often surreal place of contrasts: Damascus’ fabled Hamidiya covered market is, as ever, a swirling gyre of seemingly carefree shoppers. The storied ice cream emporium Bakdash does a brisk business; its workers pound away theatrically at crafting fresh, Arabic-style ice cream topped with pistachio flakes.
Just a few miles away, however, on the highway north toward Homs, a visitor encounters an apocalyptic tableau: Block after block of bullet-riddled apartment buildings and blown-open shops are now the face of once densely populated suburbs such as Jobar, Qaboun and Duma. The echo of gunfire and the thud of artillery are heard in the distance. Soldiers staff small outposts along the highway. Motorists are advised not to let up on the gas pedal.
In the suburb of Harasta, the charred remains of former auto dealerships spill onto the streets, an eerie testament to an era when Damascenes headed this way to buy a new car, a quotidian transaction now beyond the imagination.
Trucks skirt rebel positions as relief convoys ferry food and other supplies in a zig-zagging, circuitous route north to the government-held sector of Aleppo, its population swollen to 2 million, officials say, many of them displaced from opposition-controlled zones.
Half of Aleppo remains in the hands of Islamist rebels, who continually launch mortar rounds and rockets across an urban no man’s land into the government sector. The army, in turn, pounds the rebel side with artillery and aerial bombs. The barrages mostly kill civilians, human rights groups say, while augmenting the rubble piles.
At first glance, the sprawling campus of the University of Aleppo, with some 80,000 students, seems as if it could be an academic venue anywhere in the West. Students on benches read books and scribble notes while others scurry to and from classrooms, checking their electronic devices.
Look closer, though, and one encounters craters and fenced-off areas marking sites where shells and rockets have fallen, killing scores of students, staff members and passersby.
In Aleppo’s Old City, a sinister labyrinth of charred storefronts, mortar-round impact zones and sniper alleys best traversed in double time, Mahmoud Badawi still keeps his small shop open. Almost all his clients are Syrian soldiers who line up to purchase snacks, cigarettes and soft drinks, and to share a chat.
Gone are the days when tourists and window-shoppers strolled along the serpentine alleys. That’s when the Old City was the vibrant core of Syria’s economic hub. Only a few families remain, loyal die-hards, including Badawi, who can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“Why would I leave?” Badawi says, offering a rare outside visitor a cold juice on a sweltering day. “Aleppo is my home.”
Most everyone who remains in Syria endures power and water cuts, the threat of shelling, galloping inflation and rampant speculation about what will happen next.
With roads often subject to ambush, freedom to travel has been heavily curtailed. Checkpoints and concrete blast barriers have become accepted adornments of daily life. Institutions such as schools, hospitals and offices remain open in government-held areas, though many schools have become shelters for the legions of war homeless. Classes often are held in double shifts to make room for the extra students.
Across the country, Syrians debate whether to stick it out or venture into the unknown of life as a refugee. Many fear the very real threat of an Islamist takeover, imagining the black flag of Islamic State fluttering over Damascus. Everyone has a Plan B. The road to Lebanon is still open; everyone has friends or loved ones now settled abroad.
Many, however, are hesitant to leave as long as some modicum of a normal life is possible.
“Do I want to end up in Lebanon, where I will be treated worse than second-rate?” asks a young bank employee in Damascus’ upscale Abu Rummaneh district, a frequent target of rebel shelling. But it also boasts animated cafes and restaurants and a dynamic night life. “I’d rather take my chances here, at least for now.”
Even as the war still rages, with no end in sight, some stubborn Syrians have begun to rebuild.
Rula Khabbaz, 45, came back to the Old City of Homs with her family after fleeing, like many others, to a relatively safe rural area known as the Wadi Nasarah, or Valley of the Christians, in the shadow of Krak des Chevaliers, the iconic Crusader castle. It took months to clear the debris and rebuild the family’s second-floor apartment, which had been occupied by rebels. But the place now shines.
On a recent afternoon, she and her husband, Salim Khuzaam, 50, invited visitors in for tea.
“This has always been our home; we always wanted to come back,” Khabbaz says, happy to be here, but also bewildered at the calamity that has befallen her hometown. “We all lost so much here. For what? For nothing.”
The couple exude an expansive sense of cheerfulness and relief, despite the fact that they live in what is largely a rubble zone. Their 19-year-old daughter, Sandra, studies in a back room, the afternoon light filtering in through the windows. Family photos line the walls and shelves. The couple recalls youthful memories in this insular place, where everyone knew everyone else and neighbors watched out for one another.
On occasion, Khabbaz speaks by telephone with a cousin who has relocated to Belgium. He yearns for news from home, inquiring about the most seemingly mundane details. In a recent conversation, she said, her cousin could discern in the background the characteristic songs of the birds that swarm through Homs on summer afternoons, chirping away while hunting insects.
“Is that the swallows I hear?” her cousin asked incredulously, his voice breaking.
She took the telephone closer to the window. Far away in Europe, her cousin savored the songs of the swallows, winged creatures that never faced exile from the broken city of Homs.
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.