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Winter In Homs: Life Gets Colder And Darker In This City Under Siege

Life is about to get even bleaker in Homs, as the third winter arrives since the city fell into the center of the Syrian civil war.

Homs is known for its harsh winters
Homs is known for its harsh winters
Yazan al-Homsi*

HOMS — A third winter is coming to the besieged neighborhoods of Homs, Syria, which already suffer from daily bombardments and malnutrition.

Meteorologists predict that this winter will be the harshest for the Mediterranean region in a decade, with record-low temperatures. It comes alongside a severe lack of the very kinds of resources typically used to fight off the cold — chiefly, fuel, wood and food. Paired with that, there is no expectation for how and when the siege could end, leading to an atmosphere of hopelessness.

Local resident Abu Mahmoud, 63, reflects the sentiment. “Every day they tell us that things will change in the coming two days, or that aid is coming from the United Nations, or there will be a military operation that will put an end to the siege. But I don’t see anything, except for seasons passing and coming,” he says.

Let it burn: the final option

To produce clean drinking water, liters of diesel are needed to power water pumps. But these days, diesel is rare. That means the precious energy source can no longer be used for a heating source.

People mostly relied on wood for warmth and cooking during the first and second winter. But today, ready-to-use wood has also become rare, and has been replaced by whatever furniture is available from destroyed houses, along with wooden windows and doors.

Even the deadly rockets that attack the besieged districts and level entire buildings are repurposed and used as heating material.

Residents remember with pain how difficult it was to save money for their furniture sets and how much it meant to purchase them. Today, that furniture must be burned to keep their families warm. Once-prized tables and chairs disappear within minutes in wood stoves, leaving behind only metal pieces as souvenirs.

A new kind of daily sport has emerged among local residents: the lifting of heavy rocks to break the glass of wooden window frames and to separate the flammable pieces of doors, chairs and wooden tables. The heavy rocks will target anything that can be used as fuel.

The regal, historic houses of Homs are known for their dark blue stones, but today they are being steadily leveled by shelling, and their angular rocks are now more useful in crushing furniture.

Hussam, Mohammed and Rami are three brothers; the eldest is 14 years old. Each morning, they get to work finding and moving furniture from destroyed houses to their home. There, they begin the game of breaking the wood into smaller pieces to be brought in the house, either for the wood stove or for the cooking stove.

No one expected this to last

Residents of Homs are used to the cold winters, and Homs is known for a harsh winter climate. But in the past, kitchens would be full of hearty foods that help fight the bitter cold. In the 530 days of siege, malnutrition has visibly affected the bodies of those beset by fatigue, and decreased immunity against the ailments of winter.

“Before, you would drink some orange or lime juice and you would not catch a cold,” says said Adel, a young man in his 20s, who is watching the front lines. “You would eat some sugar with some margarine and you would no longer feel the cold. Now, you don’t have a choice other than to wear warm winter clothes, if you can manage to find some.”

The “fingerprints” of winter — from goosebumps to thinning frames — are most evident among the wounded, children and newborn babies whose weak bodies become less resistant to disease as the winter sets in.

Few people in the besieged areas considered the possibility that life could continue under such circumstances for so long. Everyone had high hopes for change, whether for better or worse, but no one expected things to continue in a grinding deadlock for this long.

Wood stoves are hard to find in Homs, since the residents switched over to using diesel heaters. The improvised solution is to repurpose the diesel heater and turn it into a wood stove. Despite being impractical and potentially dangerous, it’s seen as better than freezing to death.

As the Arabic proverb goes: “Better the smoke which blinds than the frost that kills.”

*This article was translated from Arabic by Sara Berjawi.

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