Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, shattered by war
HOMS (Syria) - The scenes of utter destruction recall those of Stalingrad and Berlin at the end of the second world war. Homs, Syria’s third largest city with a pre-war population of more than 1 million, has been devastated beyond recognition during more than five years of civil strife.
The city needs major reconstruction because only a few buildings can be restored. Most will have to be flattened and rebuilt.
Destruction is widespread in the old part of the city, which makes up 40% of Homs. There is little to identify places once filled with life. Almost every building has been reduced to an empty shell or smashed to pieces by artillery fire and aerial bombing.
Since conflict began in March 2011, Homs has been a hot spot, a rebel stronghold until pro-government forces took it back in 2014.
“Certain areas of the city, especially the old part, are completely destroyed and restoration there won’t do,” said Homs Governor Talal Barazi. “We have already started working on complete reconstruction programmes in three neighbourhoods — Baba Amr, Jobar and Sultaniya — where 465 residential towers will be built on an area of 217 hectares.”
Under the programme, Barazi explained, owners of the destroyed dwellings can choose between acquiring an alternative place, which they would receive within four years from the start of reconstruction, or owning shares in the projects.
“We expect the international community to help in the task of Syria’s reconstruction. The massive destruction is also an international responsibility,” he said. “We have 1 million families homeless. Half of them are refugees in other countries and the rest are displaced inside Syria. We definitely look forward to international support, taking into account the humanitarian aspect of the issue.”
Reconstruction work is not expected to begin for at least 18 months, according to sources in Homs municipality. “The volume of rubble and debris is estimated at more than 1.35 million cubic metres, of which only 300,000 have been removed,” one source said on condition of anonymity.
“The first bulldozer is not expected to start working before 2018, in view of the complexity of reconstruction and its intertwining with the complicated political file and issues related to financing and partnership,” the source added.
International contracting and engineering companies are headed to Syria, vying for a share in the reconstruction process. But Syrian President Bashar Assad has declared more than once that only “Syria’s friends” — an obvious reference to Russia, Iran and China — would be allowed to assist in Syria’s reconstruction.
While China limited its “friendship” to diplomatic support in the UN Security Council, Iran and Russia have been providing direct military backing to prevent Assad’s regime from collapsing.
Russian Ambassador to Syria Alexander Kinshchak visited Homs in April to check on the extent of destruction, a move seen as paving the way for Russia’s role in the reconstruction of the once vibrant Syrian city.
“The ambassador toured the old city and told me that the scale of destruction in Homs is similar to that wrought upon Europe during the second world war when the Russian city of Minsk was 95% destroyed and Berlin 100%,” Barazi said. “That’s not exactly the case in Homs and this makes us hopeful about recovering the city again.”
He pointed out that the reconstruction plans would be designed to restore the old architecture and heritage of the city as much as possible, especially the souks dating back to the Ottoman period.
Another source involved in reconstruction projects said contracts for the old city would be awarded to Russian companies while rebuilding in rural areas to the west of the city, and the nearby town of Qusair would be carried out by Iranian firms.
The shocking destruction of Homs was revealed in February in footage taken by drone filming company Russia Works. From the air, the city seems nothing more than a ghost town with little to no movement in the streets or buildings. Roofs are covered in rubble or have been blown off. The streets of the once major industrial centre are littered with debris.
Despite the desolation, some merchants whose shops were not demolished have returned to the market area in Al-Hamidiyah. Nabil Akhras reopened the undamaged section of his fabric shop six months ago, preferring not to wait for reconstruction to start.
“I decided to return although there are seldom any buyers,” he said. “Even when the gunmen were present here in the early stage of the war I used to open my shop. Some shop owners have restored their stores but the area remains largely deserted because it is still a military zone surrounded by many checkpoints.”
For journalist Mustafa Sayyed, ending the siege imposed by the regime around Homs and in the western and southern outskirts should be a prelude to reconstruction.
“The biggest problem is the massive displacement of the people from Qusair and the presence of (Lebanese) Hezbollah fighters, who are banning the people from returning to their homes… Villages and towns were emptied in ethnic-cleansing crimes, and this should stop and its fallout treated and resolved,” Sayyed said, speaking from outside Syria.