In May, an international agreement overseen by the U.N. allowed opposition fighters to leave the besieged Old City of Homs, where they had been holding out against government forces. In return, civilians – thousands of whom had fled the city over three years of war – were allowed to return.
Those residents returned to find a city changed: the streets had been blown out, entire neighborhoods destroyed and landmarks altered by shelling. The destruction in areas like Khaldiyya and Bayyada was so devastating that residents were not allowed back into their homes: the buildings left standing weren’t structurally safe.
But Homs residents say that despite assumptions that they would have free access to their homes, within days Shabiha fighters loyal to the government were stationed at checkpoints, requiring written permission from anyone who wanted to return to the streets of their neighborhood.
“To get to your house you need a lot of luck, as well as written permission allowing you to pass checkpoints surrounding our neighborhoods,” says Abu Fadi, a father of four children who returned to the Hamidiyya area after three years. “I wasn’t allowed to check on my store in a nearby area. Officials kept promising to allow us to return to all of our properties after the fighters have left. So far, it’s mostly been talk.”
Abu Fadi and others who find their homes still standing are adjusting to the idea that life in Homs is no longer the same as it was.
“We were lucky to find our house in good shape. Our neighbors weren’t as lucky. Electricity repair crews are working in the neighborhood but that is not enough. We have been here for three months, and we still have no electricity. It’s impossible to have a stable life without electricity.”
Residents who have returned and acquired permission to stay are now concerned that while the school year is starting, the city’s schools are in no shape to receive students. Many buildings have been destroyed and there are not enough teachers left to meet the student demand.
“Getting schools ready would give the people a much higher sense of stability,” says Catherine, a college student who has been living with her family in the Hamra neighborhood.
“So far, the government has done nothing to get schools ready in Hamra. People might endure the scarcity of water and electricity, but schools are now a priority for them. No family would deny their child an education just for the comfort of returning home.”
Meetings between prominent local leaders and government officials have led to some sway. Locals say the government will now allow residents to move home, provided they prove ownership of their properties – not always attainable given that municipal services that handle archived documents are now all but defunct.
“Three months ago, we met with the mayor to discuss having the people return to their homes and businesses,” says Abu Yamen, a prominent local official in the neighborhood of Khaldiyya.
“Returns are conditional on having security permission from the intelligence branch that controls the neighborhood. You have to apply for what is literally called ‘right of return.’ You will have to prove that you own the property and that you have paid all water, electricity, insurance and income taxes of the last three years, up to the time of displacement.
“After that, you are submitted to a lengthy security investigation about the number of people in your family, where each of them is, and you have to have papers to prove every answer. If any member of your family has dealt with the Free Syrian Army, escaped mandatory military service or is wanted by a security branch, the whole family will be denied the right to return, and could lose its property to the government.”
In other areas, they say, the shelling that characterized two years of siege continues, despite the U.N.-brokered cease-fire agreement.
Al Waar was the last neighborhood in Homs to shelter opposition fighters. Despite the agreement, residents say it is still under siege, and has been for the past 16 months.
Edited by Karen Leigh.