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Flattened Syrian City Of Homs Is Scene Of Devastation


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

If one city could represent Syria's suffering in its civil war, it is the city of Homs. That was the country's third largest city once, a mix of ethnic and religious groups. Now much of the city is in ruins and the government of Bashar al-Assad is back in full control after a U.N.-brokered cease-fire ended a siege of rebels there. The regime has just allowed Western journalists to see what is left of the city.

Time magazine's Aryn Baker is among them and she joins us now from the capital city of Damascus. Welcome to the program.

ARYN BAKER: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did you see?

BAKER: It was the most devastating thing I've ever seen. I was with a photographer who has been covering the war for 25 years and he has never seen anything like it. I mean this is Dresden (unintelligible) proportions, just flattened buildings, pancaked apartment towers, hospitals that are nothing but rubble. And these were middle-class areas with cafes, shops, you know, quite vibrant places that are just nothing but piles of gray rubble.

INSKEEP: Now, it's a pretty good sized city. The area you're describing, is that the center city where rebels had held out for quite some time?

BAKER: Yes. It's called the Old City of Homs and it's a handful of neighborhoods around one of the big mosques that has been taken by the rebels and they just sort of holed up in the warrens of the old market in a lot of these sort of little alleys between large apartment buildings and were able to pretty much paralyze the rest of the city because they have sniper positions that look down on other neighborhoods.

INSKEEP: So when you moved about, were you able to get some sense of what it means for that city, which was a rebellious city, that it is now back fully under government control?

BAKER: Well, the interesting thing is two days after the cease-fire was called, residents that used to live there were able to return to see what was left of their old home. So most of them were walking around almost like tourists in a way, their eyes wide open, looking at the destruction. And there's nothing left, just walls or if they were lucky, some were able to rescue old photo albums, get a little bit of jewelry, a treasured mirror, and while everybody was happy to be able to go back to their old homes, there was also a sense of resentment that the war had taken so much from them and in the end they still have nothing. So it's a sense of almost double loss.

INSKEEP: When you say people are moving back, are these supporters of the government of Bashar al-Assad or supporters of the rebel forces?

BAKER: These our former residents. Many of them may have supported the uprising in the first place. That might have changed over time. But a lot of these other neighborhoods were Christian neighborhoods or mixed neighborhoods where there are supporters and were supporters for Assad, and they are very happy that he's won. So you really do have the mixed scene in the old city.

INSKEEP: I want to remind people that this is a city where there were some of the first serious fighting of the war in a district called Bab Amr, which was destroyed at that time by fighting between the Syrian military and rebels. It has remained a city that has had pockets of resistance to Bashar al-Assad. Was this a situation in which people felt comfortable at all talking with you about their notions of this country's future or their city's future under Bashar al-Assad?

BAKER: At first they're very hesitant. No one wants to give their full name. But if you sit and talk for a while and you get over the formalities, you start seeing a little bit of the real sentiments. And there's no doubt that everybody's tired of war, but there is also a sense that they still haven't gotten the justice that started the surge for the revolution in the first place. And I have a feeling that that resentment will grow. And even if there's peace now, you do get the sense that it's not a fixed piece, that these resentments will surge again.

INSKEEP: You're back now in Damascus. Should we presume that the war goes on as ever in other parts of the country?

BAKER: Absolutely. I mean Damascus is a bubble. The parts of Homs are a bubble, and there's parts like that all across the country, but a lot of the country is still in war. And even in Damascus, where my hotel is, in a sort of elite area, you don't see much of the war. You see calm. You hear shelling occasionally, but you can try just a kilometer away from the central city and you will see the remnants of fierce fighting, seems like I saw in Homs, where buildings are just simply collapsed and no one's returned home. So the war is still very close and it's very real for people here.

INSKEEP: Aryn Baker of Time magazine, thanks very much.

BAKER: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.