Violence continues in Homs, but U.N. peacekeepers still hope to save Syria

The World

Unacceptable levels of violence and abuse are continuing in Syria.

That’s according to United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, whose ceasefire plan was supposed to stop the fighting.

Annan gave the U.N. Security Council an update on Syria Tuesday.

He told the council that the U.N.’s ceasefire monitoring mission is “the only remaining chance” to prevent a civil war.

Observers are in the country now. And there are plans to increase their number to 300 by the end of the May.

U.N. monitors escort a group of journalists to the final checkpoint. From there, they’re told, you move forward at your own risk. They do so, carefully, close to the edge of the Khalidiya neighborhood.

The streets are empty, the shops are closed. Bullet casings litter the ground. A man’s black shoe sits in the middle of the sidewalk, perhaps lost in a rush to get away from the violence. An army officer in charge of this sector says everything here is safe, no shooting.

“All forces here under control,” he said. “Nobody doing anything under order. And we stop any firing. We didn’t allow to shooting anybody here.”

Maybe not right here. But only a few hundred yards away, the battle between government forces and the rebels continues.

You can hear the gunshots.

Despite the violence, people try to carry on with their lives. But one man, who didn’t want to give his name, described every day as a fight to survive.

“Life is very difficult here,” he said. “I have a shop in this area and I haven’t been able to open for business for four months.”

But then, he revealed a further, harsher reality of living on the edge of a battleground.

“My cousin, who was an engineer, was killed,” he said. “So was the wife of my other cousin and her children. They were killed sitting in their car.”

At that point, the army commander walks close by. The man saw him and said he couldn’t talk any more. So he made a gesture instead. Pointing at the officer, then at himself, he drew his hand across his throat. Too much talking, he suggested, could also get you killed.

Down the road, a school has become a refuge for 16 families. Maisa is using the kitchen to clean the dishes. A washing machine rumbles nearby. She has been here for three months with her twin 7-year-old-sons, sleeping on the floor.

“We left where we lived because of all the attacks,” Maisa said. “Our house was completely destroyed.”

Maisa too has further, deeper troubles.

But she stopped and sighed for a moment before saying that her husband, father and brother have all been killed — and not, she said because they were fighting for the opposition.

“No, they weren’t rebels,” Maisa said. “They were trying to rescue people when they were shot dead.”

But she didn’t hesitate when asked who shot them.

“Bashar’s gangs,” she said, blaming President Bashar al Assad.

If Khalidiya is the frontline for the continuing battle in Homs, the district of Baba Amr, a short drive away, is now the battlefield left behind. Quiet now, the intense bombardment carried out here in a month-long siege that started in February drove out the rebels. But it left a cityscape scarred by ruined buildings. Rubble lines the road.

Fatima is here, pushing a cart filled with food supplies she just picked up from an aid organization. Baba Amr, she said, is her home, no matter what.

“We’ve lived here for a long time,” she said. “But when the shelling started we left and didn’t come back until the end of March.”

At her home, holes punched in the wall by shelling have been covered over with plywood. Broken windows are covered up, but it’s still livable. So she plans to stay with her children and grandchildren, though she still worries.

Fatima admitted it’s hard to know who to trust. She sighed and said she just doesn’t know what will happen next.

In this city, as in others across Syria, a small band of U.N. monitors is trying to keep the peace.

Yet even here, in Baba Amr, where the battle is officially over, the sound of gunfire is still easy to hear. And that sound makes it harder to believe a true ceasefire will become a reality anytime soon.

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