The destruction in the Jourat al-Shayyah section of Homs
Last November, James Harkin of The Guardian spent two days in Homs in Syria. While there, he met an engineering student named Mohammed:
He struck me as a sensitive soul. He was knowledgable, but when I asked about politics, he wasn't keen to talk about it: "I am very sad for my country," was all he would say. There were tanks in the streets where he lived, he said. His mother and father were afraid to go out; the day before, his little sister had seen a body in the street and she'd been crying ever since.
In January, Mohammed got in touch from Harkin, and the two men have exchanged message via MSN, Skype, and other social networks. Yesterday, the journalist published extracts from Mohammed's reports from January to June.
Early January There is killing everywhere in Homs. Anybody at a protest can be arrested when they arrive at a military checkpoint. My father was nearly arrested just because his ID card identified his birthplace as Rastan, where there are protests every day. The Arab League [monitoring mission] didn't help, because tanks are still on the streets.
Assad's regime has taken advantage of sectarian violence to incite conflict and pit brother against brother in Khaldiyeh, Baba Amr and Bab al-Sebaa. We suspected they were trying to stir up trouble because, from the beginning, Alawi were attacking our demonstrations often. Then the Syrian army began to detain protesters. Around the same time, I began to see people in Khaldiyeh carrying Kalashnikovs; they were standing on the edge of areas to protect demonstrations from attack. The regime has given weapons to the Alawite community to use against the protesters. It's even given weapons to the Shia. It's armed young Alawites against other areas – boys as young as 14 – and they're called the shabiha [the name given by the opposition to the largely Alawite, pro-regime militias that have sprung up over the past year and that seem likely to have perpetrated the massacre in Houla at the end of May, as well as the one in Hama on 6 June].
Homs is becoming more and more divided into areas for Alawites and those for Sunnis. The Free Army has power in many neighbourhoods in Homs: Bayada, Khaldiyeh, Baba Amr. They check the cars there; they even have rocket-propelled grenades. The regular army is present only at the main roads in these areas. I'm not on anyone's side, because I don't want anyone to die. But at least the Free Army haven't humiliated or killed us. My cousin was in it, and was killed in September. They're growing all the time, but the regime still controls its own areas and is using all the weaponry at its disposal apart from the air force.
The checkpoints are manned by Syrian army officers. Even if someone is old, they get angry and shout at them. One of the soldiers hit my brother and swore at him because my family is from Rastan and we live in Bayada. For a long time I was unable to leave my area to go to university because there were snipers above the post office in Bayada; at the military checkpoint in Bayada Square, soldiers were firing weapons at anyone who tried to cross the street, either on foot or in a car. One time I was trying to cut across the street and I saw people die in front of my eyes.
Electricity has become our main concern. It used to be rationed to 12 hours a day, but in the last three days it's come on just two hours each day. The price of candles has increased between three and fivefold because of the cold. When the army surrounds us, we run out of food. Some people are very, very poor. My dad works as a teacher, and even the windows and doors of his school have been stolen; there's no security at all. He can't go to work any more. We're surviving on just his wages, which are still being paid – but we can't get it because all the ATM machines in Homs are shut down. It's very hard for anyone who doesn't have a car to leave the neighbourhood. Even if you do have a car, it isn't easy to get out because of the killings and kidnappings by the shabiha and military. People are dipping bread in water to eat. I can't go to college any more because I'd have to come back to Homs very late and I'm scared I'd be arrested. There are no pedestrians in the street. Even in areas like mine, under the control of the Free Army, there are snipers. I can't even get back to the hotel where you stayed.
19 January The electricity is come, Mr James. How is your father? Send him my best wishes. My own father is sick. He is trembling all the time, despite our efforts to keep him warm. Because of the cold, he can't move his fingers and his health has got worse. My mother is sick, too; she has a problem with her legs. The toilet in our house has stopped working, I think it's blocked. Homs is not good.