James Miller speaks to an activist in the Inshaat district of Homs in Syria, amidst gunfire and a shaky Skype connection:See Also, Syria Analysis: The Changing Face of a Guerrillla War
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"Hello, James? Can you hear me? Yes, I am in Homs, and I'm alive."
Sammy (SamsonHoms on Twitter) lives in the Inshaat district of Homs. He connects to the Internet through a network attached to a satellite, but the connection; it is extremely unstable, leading to frequent breaks in conversation. Sammy is charging his laptop every chance he gets, because his neighborhood only has power between three and four hours a day. Some neighbourhoods, such as Baba Amr, are in worse shape for electricity and communications.
Sammy reports that Homs was heavily shelled last night and this morning, perhaps the worst attack in weeks. Baba Amr, right next to Inshaat, has been hardest hit. As Sammy describes it, Baba Amr has been first in everything --- the first area to protest, the home of the largest protests early in the uprising, the site of a major military campaign in May, and the home of the Free Syrian Army since September or October. For this, it is paying the price.
Inshaat, an up-scale neighbourhood just north of Baba Amr, is now occupied by regime troops. The Free Syrian Army troops stationed there pulled out on 5 February, after the first full day of shelling in the Syrian military's current offensive. Before going into hiding, the FSA used to live with the people and were very friendly with the residents.
The people of Inshaat are also in hiding. Assad soldiers occupy the streets, and snipers will shoot anything that moves. The wealthiest residents moved out before the fighting began. Many of the soldiers --- from poor rural areas, never have seen a place like Inshaat --- have robbed the empty homes, selling the luxury items find.
One family on Sammy's street tried to flee, but Sammy watched as their car, shot at by snipers, crashed and all the members were injured. Another friend of his was hit by shrapnel in his neck when a shell hit a home that he was visiting.
No one is safe, but everyone is stuck. "It's so bad, we cannot even become refugees," Sammy says with a touch of sarcasm.
When asked about the regime soldiers, Sammy said, "Some treat residents well, others say bad words, probe them, beat them." Many soldiers were always trying to find an excuse to make arrests, while several homes in the neighbourhood were burned down in the belief that they belonged to activists.
The home in which Sammy is staying has been raided six times. Each time the soldiers intimidate and ask questions, demanding to find out who is among the activists. The soldiers demand to see ID cards, even if they have checked them before, hoping that they will catch someone in a lie or without the proper documents. Residents are afraid.
The gunfire in the street, clearly audible in one of our brief phone calls, has another consequence. No residents can leave their homes to get food, while Homs is now in its 13th day without supplies coming into the city, Sammy has only left his home twice since the shelling began, and both times he took a risk.
"We have been without food, without power, without medicine, without connection," Sammy said. He described how all of western Homs is like this, though there are some provisions that come into the eastern districts. Residents in Inshaat have taken to throwing food through each others' windows, just to keep everyone alive.
I asked whether there is a reason that the Assad soldiers are hitting Homs today --- was there an FSA attack that caused the Assad army to start firing again? Sammy said that he did not know whether there are reasons for particular bouts of shelling. However, he could clearly trace the chain of events that have happened since the first weekend in February.
"First you have to know that this military operation started the day before Russia and China used their vetoes in the UNSC (United NAtions Security Council). This gave Assad the green light to crack down, to end the cycle of protests and defection. The regime is trying to end this. He (Assad) believs that he can find a diplomatic solution if the protest movement is weaker, that he can negotiate."
I told Sammy that we had seen evidence of attacks by the Free Syrian Army in the Bayada against a police station last week. He said that he did know about the attack, but that operations like these have been happening for several weeks. (This confirms other evidence that EA has collected suggesting that the FSA has systemically attacked police and security buildings since the start of February, even before the shelling on the 3rd and 4th.)
Sammy said that the most important news, however, was the humanitarian crisis. The people are running out of food. Baby formula and milk cannot be found anywhere. Occassionally, bread or vegitables are sneaked from the eastern districts of Homs, thrown from window to window, house to house. His own supplies were not completely gone, but he was rationing them because he is largely cut off from additional supplies.
Many people are injured. Sammy described how his friend who was injured by shrapnel, the family in the car accident, and many others could not be treated because the hospitals are controlled by soldiers who would arrest them. Makeshift clinics have few supplies and most people working there have little or no training.
I asked Sammy how they were surviving. Sammy said that people were just trying to make the best, making do with what they had, and sharing with others. He said that some people, if they were in dire circumstances, would speak to security forces and try to leave. Sometimes, after meeting the soldiers, they were allowed to leave if their situation was bad enough; however, these people are searched and heavily interroigated before they are allowed to go. These cases are rare, most residents are stuck in their homes and running out of hope.
"I do not know what the world is waiting for. Is it a terrorist group, or a revolution?...At least they need to send relief, to help the humanitarian situation. We need humanitarian aid."
The connection was lost. We tried to connect again, but Sammy could not hear me. While he tried to check his connection, all I could hear was gunfire.
We finally connected again, and he is safe, for now. I asked if that was gunfire I heard, and he said "I don't remember. It could be, because the shooting hasn't stopped for days."
To Sammy, the crisis in Homs is far louder. With supplies running low, the gunfire is just the background noise.