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A look inside the city of Homs, central battlefield of Syria’s war

April 1, 2014 at 6:35 PM EST
Syria’s civil war has killed more than 140,000 people. The city of Homs, once seen as the capital of the revolution, is now mostly controlled by government forces. Attack and starvation drove scores of rebels to flee or surrender, while the UN evacuated civilians in February. And yet, life goes on for some inhabitants. Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports from the besieged city.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to Syria, where three years of civil war have left more than 140,000 people dead. The city of Homs was once seen as the capital of the revolution. Now it’s mostly controlled by Assad government forces.

We take a look inside the besieged city with a report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITN: Everyone’s a suspect, so the soldiers search each car before letting it through. There’s not much beauty near the front line in Homs. Maybe that’s why they have decorated their checkpoint barrier.

The lieutenant walked me through the neighborhood of Bab Sparr. He didn’t want to show his face. The last battle, he told me, will be very soon. They’re ready for it. The soldiers say that this is as far as we can come. The front line is just beyond those buildings, less than 50 yards away.

It’s quiet now during the daytime, but there’s still fighting every night. What the soldiers say is the United Nations has taken the civilians out. It’s only fighters in there, so they want to go in and finish the job. Today, the soldiers are relaxing. They seem pretty confident. Two years ago, government forces pummeled rebel-held suburbs in Homs with artillery. Then they starved them out.

When the U.N. evacuated civilians from Old Homs in February, scores of hungry rebel fighters came too. Less than 1,000 are believed to be holding out.

LIEUTENANT HAIDAR, Syrian Army (through interpreter): The best thing is if they give up their weapons and take advantage of the amnesty. If they surrender their weapons, they can return to normal life.

LINDSEY HILSUM: In a center for displaced people, I met rebels who’ve surrendered. In other cities, similar young men disappeared into President Assad’s jails.

But, in Homs, the authorities say they will be freed after checking their criminal records. With soldiers listening, no one was going to criticize the government. But there’s no doubt they’re weary of war.

HAMZI ZAKUR, Former Rebel (through interpreter): In the beginning, we asked for simple justice, things everyone should have. But then it became something much bigger, and they brought heavy weapons. And when foreigners intervened, they started to play off one religious sect against the other.

LINDSEY HILSUM: A mile or so away, on Al Hadharah, or Civilization Street, you wouldn’t even know there was a war on. The rebels never made any inroads into this area, where most people are from President Assad’s Alawite sect.

But, in Baba Amr, a Sunni quarter which rebels controlled for two years, government forces showed no mercy. No one knows how many lost their lives here, civilians and fighters alike living month after month under constant bombardment. A few people have returned to start again, growing their own food because everyone’s been impoverished.

The kids are hard at work. They lost a brother in the bombing. Their father’s been missing for eight months. Their mother’s struggling to look after them.

RAIDA HARB, (through interpreter): I swear to God we’re crying every day about the empty houses and the people who fled. We don’t know where they are. I pray to God we can return to the way things were before.

LINDSEY HILSUM: How to make a living? Ibrahim Juma used to get 10 customers a day at his bicycle repair shop. Now he’s lucky to get two.

IBRAHIM JUMA, (through interpreter): There’s sadness everywhere, a bad feeling, a sense of loss, because we used to see our neighbors in the morning, but now we don’t. It’s sad. We don’t know where they are. Our neighbors were like our brothers, and I miss them.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The government believes it’s won in Homs and must fight, not negotiate, to win elsewhere. This then is the face of victory in Syria, ruined cities, ruined lives, and the prospect of many more years of conflict to come.

GWEN IFILL: Online, we have a report on the latest death toll in Syria’s civil war. A British monitoring group found that, despite official counts, the actual number is likely closer to 220,000 people killed over the last three years. That’s on our Rundown.