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 But today, ready-to-use wood has also become rare, and has been replaced by whatever furniture is available from destroyed houses, along with wooden windows and doors.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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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