In Homs, Syrians not waiting to start rebuilding

Sunday 23/10/2016
A Homs resident lowers a gas cylinder as he undertakes repairs to his shop, in the Old City of Homs, Syria, on September 19th. (AFP)

Damascus - Even though the end of the war in Syria is nowhere in sight, individual restora­tion and rehabilitation works have been taking place in the Old City of Homs since the rebels left more than two years ago. The lack of the money to re­build and a political solution to Syria’s crisis have prevented fami­lies from returning to that part of the city, Syria’s third largest. Hope is pinned now on a rehabilitation project for the old souqs launched in August to reinstate life and eco­nomic activity in the battered area.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi revealed at a workshop recently that technical restoration com­mittees had been formed with the support of international organisa­tions to rehabilitate historic land­marks in the war-ravaged city, once dubbed the capital of the revolu­tion against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Barazi said the governorate re­moved more than 330,000 tons of rubble and debris from the Old City, clearing main roads and inter­sections and allowing the return of 35-40% of inhabitants, while 400 shops have been repaired by their owners and reopened.

The restoration of the historic markets, including al-Nouri, al- Qaysariya and the textile market, will be implemented in four stages over a period of two years with the support of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), according to chief architect and project manager Ghassan Jansiz.

“The first phase of the resto­ration of the souqs in old Homs, which includes 4,600 shops and trades, effectively kicked off in mid-August,” Jansiz said. “The area was mapped and redrawn by 300 engineers and engineering stu­dents, supported by 70 specialists in rubble removal before the actual restoration work could start.”

UNDP Director in Homs Tarek Sa­far detailed the work accomplished by the agency. “We have taken out more than 200,000 cubic metres of debris and solid waste, amount­ing to 90% of the total volume of rubble in Old Homs, cleaned the façades of the souqs, replaced the roof of the covered market and opened the door for bids to install solar-powered street lights after the whole power network in the area had been destroyed,” Safar said.

Long before the UNDP-spon­sored project for the old souqs (wagon) was on track, a number of shop owners had taken the ini­tiative to repair their shops at their own expense, showing resilience and determination to restore some life amid the ruins.

“The damage inflicted on the covered souqs was disproportion­ate. The area where my shop is located was damaged that is why I took it upon myself to remove the rubble and repair the place,” said textile tradesman Issa Beshara.

“It is true that the activity in the market is still extremely shy and modest but many tradesmen are keen to return to their shops. Within days after I reopened my place, the owner of the shop next door returned, too, and so on. The circle became larger, mainly by those whose shops could still be repaired.”

Elias Makhoul has restored his restaurant in the old souq although customers are infrequent. He had waited in vain for government compensation for his damaged property.

“For more than a year, we have been hearing promises from the government to rebuild Homs’s old neighbourhoods but it is only a month or two ago that they started removing the metallic roof in al- Nouri, al-Qaysariya and the textile souqs and working on the reha­bilitation of the streets and pave­ments,” Makhoul said.

“Such works, although they have been delayed, will definitely en­courage more people to return to the souqs and repair their shops but they will have to rely on them­selves because the government cannot offer everything in view of the current economic situation and the war,” he added.

Charity groups offered to rehabil­itate certain streets and equip them with solar street lights, taking into account the symbolic and cultural importance of the city’s souqs for its residents.

While some sections can be re­paired, other parts of the Old City were damaged so severely that they need to be razed. However, the vast destruction did not stop Bashir Abdallah from returning to his neighbourhood of Hamidiya, after being displaced for two years.

“I fled Homs in 2013 to Damascus where I rented an apartment but due to inflation I preferred to re­turn and place the money in repair­ing my house and my shop instead of paying rent,” Abdallah said.

“It is true that we are living amid ruins and the situation is not ex­actly stable but in the end this is our city if we do not repair it, who will… We will not wait for the gov­ernment, which might take two years or even more…”

Syria’s reconstruction will re­quire international efforts on the scale of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after the second world war but in the meantime Syr­ians are trying privately to alleviate the traces of the ongoing conflict.