Adnan, an Alawite from Zahra, lies dead in the Al Ahli hospital, his face ripped by an axe, while at a nearby public hospital women dab clean the corpse of Nafla, a Sunni Muslim woman gunned down in Bayada neighbourhood. Eight months after the start of the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, killings are on the rise in the flashpoint Homs region, and they are increasingly taking a sectarian bent.
Men with weapons have put this central region of 1.6 million people under siege and Sunni Muslims and Alawites, a minority Shiite branch that includes the ruling Assad family among its adherents, lay the blame for this bloodletting clearly at each other’s doorsteps.
“My father Adnan Al Ali, a truck driver, was heading to his garage on Thursday morning when he was kidnapped by masked gunmen,” explained his son Ali, 24. “Three hours later, his body was thrown into the street,” he went on. “There was a bullet in his neck and his face had been ripped by an axe,” he said as his younger brother, Abdel Karim, screamed out insults against the city’s Sunni population.
A few streets away, under a tent, a family mourns the death of Hassan Al Hussein, 46, a Shiite soldier gunned down while riding his scooter to fetch a cylinder of gas. One of the mourners, Shadi Halabi, 25, pays his respects. He fears his father Jamal may have met a similar fate. He has not heard from him for four months. “He disappeared on his way to work,” Halabi said.
In Homs, the old neighbourhoods are Sunni and the newer ones, such as Zahra and Nizha built 40 years ago, are Alawite. “Your faith is not indicated on your identity card, but the killers will know it by the neighbourhood,” said Mohamed Jubaili, a 48-year-old engineer. The husband of Nafla Al Darwish, the woman lying in a public hospital murdered at 37 and seven months pregnant, does not want to speak.
When the doctors have finished their work, the man collapses in grief over his wife’s corpse, draped in a thin green sheet. “The army is here to protect the people,” said one Sunni man accompanying him, brewing in bitter sarcasm. Explanations for Nafla’s death differ. A doctor in the hospital said she was mowed down by a single bullet fired from a passing car. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a human rights group, said she was killed during a house search.
Outside the hospital, three refrigerated trucks have become makeshift morgues containing 80 unclaimed bodies. Syrian laws demands that hospitals keep corpses for one month before they can be buried. According to Basam Al Mohamed, a medical examiner, in Homs there were 200 killings in October and 250 so far in November.
“The majority (of victims) are bound up by their feet and hands. Some were killed by strangulation, others executed by a bullet to the head. There are also mutilated bodies and some beheadings,” he said flipping through his logbook. “This has become the most dangerous city in the country,” he said. And judging by the names and the neighbourhoods, “most of the victims of the gunmen are Alawite or Shiite,” another doctor added.
“In Homs, when a Sunni is killed by Alawites, the Sunnis retaliate and when a Sunni is kidnapped, it’s the same thing,” a rights activist said. “The regime kills Sunni protesters and the Sunnis respond by killing Alawites. Many Alawites think the regime’s end will be their own end and that pushes them to support (the regime),” he said.
Omar Al Idilbi, a spokesman from the opposition Local Co-ordination Committees, said these tit-for-tat killings were “rare” and nothing more than a response to regime aggression. “It’s not worth generalising this (as a) phenomenon,” he said. When the sun sets over Homs, the city bathes in fear. Blasts of gunfire, grenade rockets and heavy artillery rip through the oncoming night. Even regime security forces shelter behind sandbags and barrels.
During the day, Homs seems innocuous enough except when you approach Sunni neighbourhoods like Bab Amro, Bab Sebaa, Khalidye and Bayada. There, piles of trash crumble into the road and rubble and stones block the street, as a warning to an errant vehicle that may adventure through by mistake. “I can’t take you in there because if the armed men catch me, they’ll kill me on the spot and you along with me,” explained an officer escorting a team of AFP reporters. Besides, security forces won’t be found here, he adds. They avoid these neighbourhoods.