In Ancient Syrian City, Fighting Has Stopped But Rebuilding Is Scarce

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A workman with the U.N. Development Programme to rehabilitate Homs fills a pothole at the beginning of reconstruction in a city that has seen very little so far.

The delight that architect Marwa al-Sabouni takes in the Old City of Homs is luminous and contagious.

We're walking round the historic area at the heart of the central Syrian city, north of Damascus, which was for two years a bastion of rebel fighters, besieged by the government. And at first, all I can see is destruction. Some buildings are pancaked by airstrikes, others have shell holes ripped in the sides. Almost all are sprayed with bullet holes.

But Sabouni, a small, energetic woman, sees beyond the degradation of Syria's civil war, and points out the layers of the past in these old stones. We stop at the largest mosque in the area, known as the Nouri Mosque.

"It was originally a temple for the sun," she says, referring to a pagan structure that once stood here. "Then a church, then half of it was sold to the Muslims, and the church and the mosque shared one building."

She points out Roman columns that were used in the construction of the mosque.

"This is the amazing thing about the older architecture," she says. "Any one didn't cancel out the other — this is the harmony that was built and it was lived."

She urges me on through the higgledy-piggledy streets. We go past churches, into a breathtakingly beautiful Ottoman bath house where sunlight streams through elaborately patterned tiny windows and dapples layered black and white walls. Ignoring piles of debris and rubble, she points out orange and lemon trees.

For Sabouni, this old part of Homs — rich and poor, Christian and Muslim, trees and squares — is an architectural embodiment of peace and co-existence.

"Everything is so studied in a way that will give you calmness to your eye and to your mind and consequently to your spirit," she says in a small English-language bookshop she runs.

It has been far from calm for the last six years, though.

Homs was once called the heart of the Syrian revolution. Protests calling for an end to the autocratic rule of President Bashar Assad sprang up in 2011 and filled the city's main streets and squares. A government crackdown ensued, protestors took up arms and some of the worst violence of the ongoing civil war ensued.

Rebels took control of much of Homs and hunkered down in the Old City partly because the ancient basalt buildings endured Assad's onslaught much better than modern concrete ones. The fighting has been largely over since 2014. Government forces and their allies crushed the rebels and negotiated surrenders.

But the city will pay the price for generations: 60 percent of Homs is still uninhabitable. Aside from the deaths and injuries, people here speak of irreconcilable rifts in relationships after people chose one side or another.

For Sabouni, part of the answer to why war broke out here lies in the way the city developed in the last century or so, a question she explores in her 2016 book, The Battle For Home.

The evolution of the city is long, but one place to start is with industrialization in the 20th century.

"More people came into the city," Sabouni says. "The working forces, as they were called, changed their occupations from peasants to farmers."

They lived not in the Old City, where rich and poor used to live in relatively close proximity, but on the fringes in badly planned slums.

"It snowballed into what we have now, we have just slums around the cities where 40 percent of the population was living prior to the war," Sabouni says.

A similar thing happened in the capital, Damascus, and some other cities. Sabouni says that because rural people moved in with their friends and family from their old villages, the slums divided not just rich and poor but also people by geographical origin and religion. The city became ghettoized.

You can see that as contributing to the sectarianism that's overlaid the civil war, and also, she contends, to a simple loss of social cohesion that caused unrest to erupt swiftly into violence.

"When you have something that is strong and cohesive among people, when you have something to preserve, something to care about, something not to lose, people may find alternative ways of expressing — alternative ways to solve their problems," she says.

For more context on this, I turn to a man who crafted economic policy for Assad before the war, as deputy prime minister for economic affairs. Abdullah al-Dardari is now working with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, based in Beirut.

He points out that industrialization and urbanization were not just Syrian problems, but concedes, "How we managed it, and how we developed urban plans and urban centers, was not the most efficient."

And Dardari gets to a question that is crucial now to the future of Syria. Assuming Assad wins the war — and he has the upper hand — can — or will — the Syrian state rebuild its relationship with people from rebellious areas like Homs?

He says that depends as much on inclusive reconstruction as it does on the trappings of democracy.

"We talk about the need for very good elections," he says. "But more important is the sense of safety and security of returning and the equity and equitability of this reconstruction program."

"I need to feel that I am equal to everyone else," he adds.

So, two years after the end of major fighting in Homs, is reconstruction happening in an inclusive way?

The United Nations Development Program is hard at work in the Old City. The project is led by Sabouni's husband, Ghassan Jansiz, and the initial goal is to rehabilitate the old souk so people can re-open shops and support their livelihoods. There are people back in the shops and houses, though the place seems sparsely populated.

But in another neighborhood which was held by the opposition, Khalidiyeh, apart from work on a historic mosque, not a brick has been laid, not a soul has been allowed back and the destruction goes on as far as the eye can see, block after brutalized block. The situation is similar in other rebellious areas.

Officials in Homs won't give an interview. But residents here are happy to talk and they seem unsure of official reconciliation plans, and reconstruction.

"Of course Homs is not like before," says Rasha al-Mustafa, a recent graduate working in a drugstore. "Yes, thank God there is reconstruction in the old souk," she says. But there needs to be much more – schools, hospitals, housing.

"It won't happen very soon," she says. "The destruction is huge in Homs."

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