The corpse, already waxy, wrapped in its shroud, a crown of plastic flowers around its head, lies in a corner of the mosque. Kneeling next to the coffin, a boy in tears, his brother, strokes his face with infinite tenderness. The dead boy was 13. The night before, around 11 o’clock, he was breaking wood in front of his doorstep. His father, eyes swollen, but upright and dignified among his friends and relatives, tells me what happened: “He probably shone his mobile phone to see what he was doing. And the sniper killed him.”
It was neither an accident nor chance. Their street is constantly under fire from this sniper, who, based in the neighbourhood school, practises on cats when he has no other targets. “We don’t even dare take out the rubbish any more,” a neighbour adds. Another man shows me, on his mobile phone, the corpse of his brother, killed while he was protecting his 11-year-old son, before explaining to me that he had to break down the walls between his house and his neighbours’ to get out without exposing himself to gunfire.
After the burial, I pile into a car with three activists to continue on to a neighbourhood further east, Karam al-Zeytoun. At each avenue, the shawari al-maout or “death streets” as people call them, the driver speeds up, foot to the floorboard, to avoid the gunshots. As if on cue, shots ring out ahead of us. We swerve abruptly into a small street. We find ourselves at a makeshift emergency care centre. The staff are holding down a young man whose lower skull has been pierced by a bullet. He twists, vomits a flow of blood, rears up, vomits again; the man treating him, who isn’t even a doctor, can do nothing; they bandage up his head and bundle him into a taxi, to rush him to a clinic. A witness explains what happened: the victim, 27 years old according to his ID card, was shot in front of the nearby Said ibn Amer mosque as he was carrying medicine to his parents; one hour earlier, another man was killed coming out of the mosque, by a bullet through the neck.
The witness doesn’t even have time to finish his story. New wounded are brought in, an older man hit in the upper chest and a veiled woman, rolling terrified eyes, her jaw split open by a bullet. It’s the same sniper as for the young man and he seems to always aim for the neck; this woman was lucky. The man gasps for breath; he is finally evacuated in a delivery van, with a friend lying next to him to hold up the IV-drip. We are all wading in the blood; one of the activists clutches his head, already at the end of his tether. But this is only the beginning. As we are questioning witnesses at the medical assistant’s home, we hear more honking and run back to the centre. It’s chaos. The two wounded men they had tried to send to a hospital have been brought back, dead; the staff are bustling around three more wounded, hit by a shell blast in front of another first aid point; on the table, a fourth man dies right in front of me, after a brief shudder, without my even realising it. I try to question one of the wounded but then they bring in a baby, hit in the groin.
A little later, after a far-too-long drive down the sniper avenue, I come across a naked man, covered in blood, his hands tied, his head crushed flat, being paraded in triumph on a Free Syria Army (FSA) pickup truck. It is the body of a shabiha, a regime militia man, who was lynched 20 minutes ago.
Three days later, similar scenes are repeated in Bayarda, a bastion of the opposition in the northern part of the city. This time we won’t even have to leave the building where we’re staying: the first aid centre is on the ground floor. The first wounded man is brought in just before noon, his abdomen pierced by a bullet as he was trying to protect his children from the shots of a sniper hidden on the roof of the neighbourhood post office; his son soon follows, with two fingers shot off. Another man has already been killed in the same place, we are told. Two hours later, it’s a 10-year-old boy, whose thick black hair I stroke as the doctor binds his hands with gauze. The bullet, which went through his chest, killed him on the spot. His cousin gazes at the little body and sobs: “Praise to God, praise to God.” There will be a last one before evening, a man shot through the lungs, who will barely survive.
Near a wide avenue, I am shown a long metal pole with a hook welded to the end: it is used to recover the wounded, as well as the dead. The snipers shoot at everyone, women, children, first aid workers, for no reason whatsoever. Unless it’s to punish the stubborn population of the rebel neighbourhoods, collectively guilty for refusing to bow their heads and silently obey their lord and master.
I wanted to attend the funeral of the little boy, whose name was Taha, but it couldn’t be held before I left: the mukhabarat security forces who control the morgue were refusing to release his body unless his father signed a paper certifying his son had been killed by “terrorists”, meaning the FSA, of course. There is worse. Later on the day of the killings in Karam al-Zeytoun, the activists learn that an entire family has been murdered at home, in a neighbourhood called Nasihine: 11 people, including five children, three with their throats cut. It was a Sunni family that lived at the edge of a neighbourhood dominated by the Alaouite community (the dissident Shiite sect of President Bashar al-Assad‘s clan and of the leaders of the security forces); testimonies gathered from the scene suggest a sectarian provocation.
The FSA launched reprisal operations the night of the Nasihine massacre. But they were careful to target only military objectives: the checkpoints that covered the killers’ escape, and a military intelligence headquarters. The FSA officers, in fact, just like the civilian activists, do everything in their power to resist a sectarian perversion of the revolution. “We are aware that the regime is playing the card of religious clashes,” says Muhannad al-Umar, one of the leaders of the Military Council of Baba Amr. “Yes, if the conflict persists, it is likely that we’ll plunge into a sectarian conflict, because the Alaouite community unequivocally supports the regime. But if the regime falls, there won’t be any reprisals. They are a part of Syrian society, like us.”
No one denies that Alaouite civilians have already been the victims of murders or kidnappings, often for use as bargaining chips. The activists I have discussed this with blame uncontrolled fringe groups, especially Bedouin families, a community with a strong blood vengeance tradition, taking revenge on innocent Alaouite civilians, especially when their women or children have been killed or raped. The regime, of course, uses these crimes to paint its adversaries as terrorists. But to me, there is a clear distinction to be made between on one hand the regime’s systematic policy of sectarian murder, and on the other the inability of recently constituted and still fragile authorities to rein in the most extremist elements in their camp.
In Bayarda, shortly after Taha’s death, I meet a film-maker from Damascus. “There is a religious confrontation under way here, it’s undeniable,” he acknowledges. “On both sides, there is talk of ethnic cleansing. But it’s particular to Homs, it doesn’t exist elsewhere. Me, I am a secular man. I must be here. If I am not, then it is a sectarian war. But if it develops better in other cities, if a better version of the revolution prevails, then Homs will be contained.”
This is far from given. Since I left the city, on 2 February, it has been bombed daily, massively, and more than 718 people have been killed, according to a detailed list I obtained from the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Communication networks are nearly all down, there is no more bread, and the clinics are overwhelmed with casualties. The west and the Arab League, paralysed by the Russian and Chinese veto, are talking of UN peacekeepers, of humanitarian corridors. This brings back bad old memories. Between 1993 and 1995, when I was in Bosnia, more than 80,000 people were killed in front of the eyes of journalists and aid workers from around the world, and of UN peacekeepers whose mandate allowed them only to shoot rabid dogs. If we have nothing better to offer the Syrian people, we might as well leave them to their fate. It would at least have the virtue of honesty.