HOMS, Syria — The international community is lauding a United Nations-brokered deal to provide relief to Homs’ long-blockaded Old City, but the aid plan is far from universally welcome in this battle-scarred and profoundly divided city.
The relief effort has stirred deep animosities among many government supporters, who view it as a sellout to opposition forces — “terrorists,” in official terms — hunkered down in the ruins of the Old City.
“This is basically giving the terrorists food and medicine and letting them go free,” said Rihab Ismael, a dairy worker who lives in the Zahra district, a sniper-plagued zone less than a mile from what remains of the rebel-controlled Old City. “We desperately need help here too. Why is everything concentrated on the ones who made our lives unbearable?”
More than 600 people were evacuated Sunday from Old Homs under U.N. auspices, an exodus that unexpectedly included 130 fighting-age men, many accompanied by their families. The initial deal applied only to civilians and stipulated that any men ages 16 to 54 who chose to leave could face a judicial process.
Some Syrian soldiers providing security were visibly dismayed to see men who could be their rebel adversaries apparently headed to freedom under U.N. patronage.
The possibility that rebels were among the evacuees seemed likely to complicate the Old City aid process — and to further stoke fury among those who already view the deal as a betrayal.
Nowhere is the outrage more evident than in Zahra, where most residents are Alawites, the sect of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Syria’s Alawite minority is generally fiercely loyal to the government; likenesses of Assad and the Syrian flag are ubiquitous in Zahra. As the Syrian conflict has turned more sectarian, many Alawites view the war as a question of survival against Sunni Islamist militants who regard Alawites and members of other Muslim sects as apostates. Rebels clutching the severed heads of Alawite men as gruesome war trophies have become a staple of opposition images posted on the Internet.
Hundreds of civilians in Zahra have been killed by sniper fire or shelling originating from the Old City and other rebel-held districts, residents say; others have been kidnapped and never heard from again. Many also have perished serving in the army and security services.
Stylized color posters of “martyrs” line the streets of Zahra; one image mourns a family that lost 19 members to “terrorists,” including several allegedly kidnapped and executed.
The accounts of rebel atrocities mirror those from pro-opposition activists who accuse government forces of massacres of Sunni Muslim families and bombardments of Sunni districts.
Contrary to the widely disseminated narrative of a rebellion that began with peaceful protests, many in Zahra recall a wave of violence engulfing Homs amid a chilling rebel slogan: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin!” As the war ground on, Alawites who say they faced expulsion or death in other areas fled to Zahra for safety, swelling the population.
Syrian forces have gradually pushed the rebels back in Homs; the Old City, now surrounded by government troops, is one of two remaining strongholds inside the city limits. Government forces keen to cut rebel supplies have kept aid out of the encircled Old City. Two truckloads of food, medicine and other supplies delivered Saturday were the first outside assistance to reach the Old City in 20 months.
On Sunday, the third and last day of the U.N. aid operation in the Old City, six would-be evacuees were killed in a mortar strike, said Yacoub El Hillo, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Syria. The day before, four people were killed in strikes. It was not clear who fired the deadly mortar rounds, El Hillo said.
Cease-fire violations occurred on all three days of the aid operation. Officials were mulling a possible extension, El Hillo said.
The extensive street fighting and shelling have reduced the Old City and a number of areas, including the adjacent Khalidiya district, to ghostly, rubble-strewn wastelands. Along the remaining commercial strips in Homs, street stalls hawk appliances, furniture and other items looted from abandoned and ransacked homes.
Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, shuts down in the evening amid the thud of mortars and the crackle of gunfire.
For more than two years, all streets from the Old City east to Zahra have been blocked with alternating rows of makeshift anti-sniper barriers built of cinder blocks, metal dumpsters, sand bags and other material. The barriers, the tallest about 30 feet high, are pockmarked from bullets and shelling. They are placed like huge dominoes along the vulnerable thoroughfares.
“That man is in danger of being sniped,” Mustafa Abbout, mukhtar or district leader of one area of Zahra, told a reporter Sunday, pointing to an elderly man using a cane to navigate a street exposed by a gap between two cinder-block walls. “We’ve tried to arrange the barriers to connect the streets, so children going to school can pass safely. But it’s still not completely safe.”
Like other Zahra residents interviewed, Abbout is shocked that the Syrian government, under international pressure, is allowing food and other staples into the Old City. He acknowledges that some of the estimated 2,000 civilians inside are being forced by the rebels to remain there as “human shields,” a deterrent against military bombardment. But he and others interviewed in Zahra insist that most inside the warren of rubble-strewn streets and alleys are rebels or their families, people who back the rebellion and deserve no mercy.
“Anyone who wasn’t with them left a long time ago,” said Abbout, 41, who pulled back a cracked cinder block from one barrier to expose a sliver of the devastated Old City, a cemetery in the foreground, unseen snipers somewhere in the blasted cityscape.
Inside Abbout’s nearby apartment, a wall in the living room has become a shrine to a younger brother, Amer Abbout, whose smiling visage gazes down from a photograph. A taxi driver, Amer was kidnapped two years ago, the family says; he hasn’t been heard from since.
“He’s inside the Old City somewhere; we don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” said Abbout, as his elderly mother gazed forlornly at the image of her lost son. “He is in God’s hands.”
The mukhtar leads visiting journalists to the roof of his five-story building, offering panoramic views of the skeletal remains of Homs’ ancient quarter. Safety dictates staying low, moving quickly and crouching behind satellite dishes that provide some cover from snipers. Chickens scamper about, pecking at decaying bits of lettuce and other greens left on the roof; people started keeping fowl when it was too dangerous to go out for food, Abbout explains. A clutch of pigeons takes wing as a shell detonates in the distance.
“We suffer and no one helps us, but the terrorists inside are getting everything they need,” says Abbout. “I don’t see any justice in that.”
Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.