[Editor’s note: The below article was produced as part of Al-Jumhuriya’s 2017 Fellowship for Young Writers. It was originally published in Arabic on 28 December, 2017.]
For three and a half years, starting October 2013, opposition fighters in the besieged Homs neighborhood of al-Wa’r reached several truces with Assad regime forces. In May 2017, the area was evacuated, leaving the city of Homs entirely under regime control, al-Wa’r having been its last revolutionary foothold. During three of these truces, visiting the city as well as leaving it was permitted for civilians who wished to do so.
In all three cases, there was just one road, no longer than 1,500 meters, carrying the many stories told by those who crossed it during visits. These tales shared the common theme of the suffering endured while traversing the road, in spite of its short length. Nonetheless, the pain of the journey was no match for the longing that drove thousands to make it, some visiting family and children, others their homes.
The road runs through the city’s orchards and crosses the Orontes river, which itself bisects the city, separating al-Wa’r from all the other neighborhoods. It can be divided into two parts: one starting in the east from the Gardenia Roundabout in regime-held al-Ghouta (not to be confused with the Damascus suburb of the same name) up to the restaurant on the river known to Homs natives as the Engineers’ Roundabout; and the second part extending therefrom over the river to the start of al-Wa’r, under opposition control.
The story of this road during these truces is told to us by Zeina, a child who left al-Wa’r in 2013, returning to it as a young woman two and a half years later during the first truce of 2016, when people were allowed to access the neighborhood. She returned again during the second and third truces, and is now a university student, soon to graduate.
This text is Zeina’s experience entering the besieged city, via the road she’d crossed to revisit her memories of place, home, and childhood. It’s an experience shared by thousands of those who have traveled the same road.
I had to leave home. That’s what my parents decided. I had a baccalaureate exam and a future awaiting me, and education needs concentration. I’d spent most of the previous nights studying in the bathroom, the safest place in the house.
I was expecting to come back soon; after the exam at the latest. I didn’t know what my parents had in mind, and I didn’t ask, but I never imagined I would return to al-Wa’r as a visitor, carrying a small piece of paper that was my passport to enter. A temporary passport, specifying my arrival and departure dates, like a tourist visa to the home I grew up in, and the neighborhood that I know and that knows me, its details retained in my memory, my childhood preserved in it.
They declared the truce two and a half years after we left al-Wa’r, and then opened the door for registration for whoever wanted to visit. I certainly wanted to very badly, but I was caught between many things; longing sometimes, and fear always. Fear of seeing what I didn’t want to see: the ruin done to my memories.
Many people were waiting at the door of the governorate building, the offices of which were relocated to the municipal stadium, or Khalid ibn al-Walid, as they liked to call it before the revolution. This relocation happened after the governorate building, near the New Clock Square, was evacuated after the siege was enforced on Old Homs. The office that the governorate took up for registration lies at the rear part of the stadium, on the al-Wa’r side, close to the main stage, at the start of al-Kharab St., which is one of three that run across Homs’ orchards towards al-Wa’r. The second is Gardenia Road, which was the road we would take, the third being al-Mimas Road, which remained closed.
Anyone standing at the western end of al-Kharab St. in al-Wa’r could see the stadium, just as it was possible for me to see the minarets of the President Mosque in al-Wa’r from the new governorate office at the eastern end. Yet I couldn’t see anything other than al-Kharab. How strange this name (literally meaning “Devastation”) was. Who had known this road’s fate, in order to name it thus? Who had foreseen that it would become devastated?
Before entering the office, I saw al-Wa’r on the horizon. The devastation we’d seen in photos, which we’d soon see with our naked eyes after receiving the papers from the office, made it distant enough despite the few meters that separated us, yet close enough for me not to forget its details; the details I would love to keep suspended in my mind; those of the calm and pleasant neighborhood, away from the clamor of the city, from which it chose to separate itself with the orchards and the Orontes.
Al-Wa’r was distinguished by its geometric organization, in contrast to the haphazard construction in all of Homs’ other neighborhoods. It was a neighborhood that not many wanted to live in because it was, by their standards, far away and cold, both in its weather and its customs, being Homs’ newest neighborhood as well as its most distant. I alone found it affectionate and warm. Is it not enough that it raised me through childhood and adolescence?
The paper that I and the other people received was our way to the devastation that the neighborhood has become. Most of them, notably, were women: mothers, and elderly men, with their children in the neighborhood. To visit them in their incarceration was an opportunity not to be missed.
The requirements in the office amounted to possessing an identity card, with al-Wa’r as the place of registration, or a title deed or rental contract for a house in the neighborhood, even if fictitious. Alternatively, a paper from the mukhtar (roughly equivalent to a mayor) of al-Wa’r, who lived outside of it, along with a 1,000 Syrian pounds (US$2) note, would grant anyone a residency permit. What mattered was for people to see their children, the same children described by the governorate employees as “militants.” That’s why they told us at the registration to wait until the “militants” left—for our own sake, they claimed—pretending not to know that all these people had been waiting for hours to enter to see those very children.
I waited a long time to get that paper, which included my name, and a number they’d chosen to be my passage number, written hastily and messily in blue. We would find the same name and number at the checkpoint set up at the electricity company right before the Engineers’ Roundabout, on the Gardenia Road towards al-Wa’r; a number that cost a long wait, boiling blood, longing, and fear.
We reached the Gardenia Roundabout in al-Ghouta. I don’t know exactly where the name came from. My mother tells me it was named after a restaurant called Gardenia that was once here, perhaps before I was born, in place of which there’s now a tower, the tallest tower in Homs, a part of Homs’ dream. I’d have preferred it if someone had planted gardenia here once upon a time, and that was where the name came from, rather than a restaurant I didn’t know, and the tower that replaced it; the tower that cast a heavy shadow on the city, and caused so many to be killed by snipers that knew no mercy.
There’s a big difference between Gardenia Road before the revolution and the road during the truce. To me it was never anything more than just a road to cross by car. I used to feel it was very long, despite being only 1,500 meters. I’d never contemplated walking it on foot, as the orchards that start shortly after the roundabout make the road look forlorn. Just thinking of walking down Gardenia Roundabout to al-Wa’r would make me afraid, but during this truce they forced us to do so to reach home again, to check up on our memories there. Are they still there, or have they been bombed too?
I changed my mind at this point; the road wasn’t as long as I’d thought. I don’t know why I discovered this; perhaps because I’d spent so much time at the two regime checkpoints, or because I was excited to walk across the road and examine its every detail until I reached al-Wa’r.
The number we struggled to obtain due to the great congestion was our visa, one we kept with us at all times, repeatedly making sure we still had it, for it was our only means of crossing the regime checkpoint. During the long hours I spent waiting for my turn, I would study people’s faces, tired of standing for so long; men, women, and children sometimes, with more bags and luggage than they could carry, somehow finding the strength to go on for the sake of their children. I saw what was inside these bags several times during the inspections we underwent. They were full of food and cooked meals, and though I didn’t ask any of them, I have no doubt each woman had cooked their child’s favorite meal, for no one outside the siege feels its effect like the mothers of the besieged.
There wasn’t a single young man among those entering the neighborhood. They were all in the regime-held areas, and it was naturally preferable for them not to visit revolutionary al-Wa’r. The people were exhausted from standing up, nervous about the regime checkpoint, eager to see the faces awaiting them beyond opposition lines.
Gardenia Roundabout marks the beginning of the road. A few meters afterward, there are three- or four-story buildings on the right, and behind them the huge tower, Gardenia Tower. On the left are other buildings, with a State Security branch behind them. Beyond these buildings on both sides are the orchards.
The first checkpoint is only a few meters before Gardenia Tower, at the villa belonging to Tarif al-Akhras, a well-known Homsi businessman close to the regime. We wait at the checkpoint for hours in order to ride the green bus that takes us to the second one at the electricity company. It’s only five hundred meters away, but they force us to take the bus dozens of people at a time, well beyond its capacity. It seems everyone in this country is destined to ride these green buses!
I ignored the first checkpoint, and took advantage of the huge crowd to skip the bus and walk to the second checkpoint. The orchards were now on both my left and right, and the road dipped slightly to a lower level than the Gardenia Roundabout. Reaching the electricity company on my right and the water company on my left, I faced the Engineers’ Roundabout restaurant, which would make it seem like a dead-end to one who didn’t know the road. The restaurant had been renovated for a re-opening which had yet to occur. Behind it was the Engineers’ Club, the road winding right and then left again, until it reached al-Wa’r.
There’s a checkpoint a few meters before the Engineers’ Roundabout, right next to the electricity company. The checkpoint is no more than a UNICEF tent where people and their luggage are inspected, and a table where a few officers examine ID cards, and the numbers that are permitted entry on this day. After that is a room that looks more like a prison, with one chair for the policewoman assigned to perform a full body inspection of us women. She pretends to do her job, while in fact possibly stealing things from us.
On the opposite side of the street, at the water company, there’s another checkpoint for those under siege in al-Wa’r wishing to visit Homs city. I was never able to get a very good view of that checkpoint due to the crowd, even though it was just ten meters away. The only thing I could discern was a quote by Assad père that I always read in a rush and never thought of when passing it by car. This time, I read it: “Man is he who builds the homeland, and is the foundation of all construction, progress, and advancement.” Perhaps they meant the “men” they’ve imprisoned for years in a single neighborhood no larger than three square kilometers.
The officers are always agitated, sometimes seemingly due to the crowds, or hunger or the weather. At other times it was clearly disingenuous, designed to annoy people; their agitation something we were compelled to meet with calmness in order to enter quickly, as quickly as possible.
One encounters many stories of suffering here. For me, the worst was a woman saying audibly to herself, “I swear, al-Barr hospital never used to be visible from here.” I was shocked for a moment; indeed, the hospital, although a tall building, was always hidden by the buildings and the trees in the orchards. Now there were neither buildings nor trees to cover it. At that instant I contemplated turning around. I was too afraid to see what I didn’t want to see, too afraid for my memories.
Our turn came, we handed over our ID and number to the officer. He wrote down our information on a paper in front of him, and then we were searched. After this, I felt great relief; only then did I begin to enjoy what remained of the road ahead. I smelled the fragrance of the Orontes, that scent I’d missed for so long, the scent my memory automatically associates with al-Wa’r, with the orchards, the windflowers, the fresh air that the city lacks. All of these made me forget the long road I’d walked. There was no green bus here, only a green, white, and black flag with red stars waving to us from afar.
The first people I encountered from my neighborhood were children dragging carts to carry people’s luggage from the Engineers’ Roundabout to al-Wa’r, crossing the opposition checkpoint in the direction of the regime’s. These children appear strong despite their thin faces. I once saw them throwing stones at the regime checkpoint while laughing. I watched them with the curiosity of someone making a new discovery; I wanted to know the rest of the story unfolding in front of me. One of the officers ran after the children, but they dashed off like lightning till they reached the opposition checkpoint, their laughter boisterous, knowing no fear.
The section between the opposition checkpoint and the regime’s, between the Engineers’ Roundabout and the start of al-Wa’r, was the most beautiful, despite it being flooded. They placed “blocks” and used gravel to create a pathway for us to cross over, as the Orontes had overflown, drowning the street. One of the children didn’t care, leaving the herd of carts and standing on the river’s banks, laughing as he jumped in, saying, “Finally I’ve caught a fish!” His joy was infectious, and I asked him to show me the fish, to which he cheerily replied, “Look, it’s swimming in my hand!”
The distance between the Gardenia checkpoint and the electricity company checkpoint at the Engineers’ Roundabout is roughly the same as the distance between the Engineers’ Roundabout and the opposition checkpoint, but I never felt how long it was. My heart pounding faster with every step I took made me forget about it; with every stride towards al-Wa’r I felt my heart jump out of its place trying to get there before me, as I desperately persuaded it to calm down so we’d arrive together. At last, we reached the final checkpoint. We reached al-Wa’r. I reached my neighborhood.
At the opposition checkpoint, words were uttered that alleviated the fear I’d had for my memories: “Thank God for your safe arrival.” Despite the tiny distance between Gardenia and al-Wa’r, it warranted more than thanking God for your safe arrival. They said it with a laugh, but the sorrow in their eyes was too great for laughter to conceal. If one didn’t catch the sorrow in their eyes, one couldn’t miss it in the neighborhood’s features that had changed immensely. Al-Maytam Street, al-Ra’is St., al-Waleed Hospital St., al-Ma’arid St., my house’s street, even my house itself: everything had changed. Al-Wa’r—officially named New Homs—had reached old age. Even so, I got used to it right away. I loved everything in it, from the checkpoints, the barricades, and the walls, to the cisterns in the street, to the walls built for snipers, one of which looked like part of an ancient castle wall forgotten here by time, to the paintings on the destroyed buildings and on the walls, the poetry written here and there. I adored it all, and gave it a place in my memory, right next to where I kept my past recollections.
The neighborhood has since been evacuated of its inhabitants and revolutionaries, and of the civilians displaced to it over the course of five years. In May 2017, its people were forcibly removed, and the three checkpoints were taken down, to be replaced by a single one run by the regime at almost the exact spot where the opposition’s had once stood. Gardenia Road, however, will always be separated in my memory into two parts, and three checkpoints.
I no longer walk this road as I used to during ceasefires. We cross it in the same way we did before the revolution, except now the memories of it are imbued in my head, in the way that it was during those days of truce. However much it further changes in future, it will remain the same in my mind; the road I crossed one day afraid and longing to reach al-Wa’r, to reach my memory.