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In Return To Old City, Syrian Civilians Find Homs In Devastation


It's a city that looks like an outsized set for a Hollywood disaster blockbuster. That's how Los Angeles Times reporter Patrick McDonnell describes the ravaged Old City of Homs in Syria. It's been under military siege for almost two years. Last week, some 2,000 Syrian rebels were allowed to leave Homs, under a truce agreement. Now, the Syrian army is in control and civilians who fled have come back to the Old City in droves to see what they can reclaim of their lives there. Patrick McDonnell joins me now. He just spent two days in Homs and he's back in Damascus. And, Patrick, describe the Old City and the extent of the devastation that you saw there.

PATRICK MCDONNELL: Well, it's quite staggering, and one of the challenges really of covering Syria is just describing the extent of the destruction everywhere really, but especially in the Old City of Homs. At first, it's somewhat reminiscent of these photographs, I think we all remember, of bombed-out cities in World War II: Dresden, Stalingrad, places like that. When you're inside, it's really a war(ph) of alleys and small streets and you're kind of surrounded by these hollowed-out facades of buildings and piles of debris of all kinds. At the same time, as you mentioned, all these people are coming back and many of them are just actually thrilled to be there, even though many of them have found their houses were destroyed.

BLOCK: Well, that's the really surreal part of this, isn't it, the civilians who are happy to be back. What are they finding when they come home and are they expecting to stay in Homs?

MCDONNELL: There's two answers to that. People are finding kind of various remnants, mementos of their lives. Usually not anything of value, but, I mean, I found, you know, women with bags of hair curlers and hair pins. I found a man who was just hugging a photograph of his late father in military uniform. People had battered toys and rugs. And I think a lot of it was just the psychological connection of their former lives that had been shattered. Now, I think just about everyone who used to live there said they wanted to go back but the scale of the destruction is really so vast that I think it's clear to everyone that wide expanses of the Old City is going to have to be razed and rebuilt. So, how many of them will be able to go back, I think, is, you know, a major question.

BLOCK: So, for now, they may be coming back to find what few possessions they can and then to leave once more?

MCDONNELL: That's very much the case. I mean, there's limited electricity and water. The place is really not habitable right now. You know, there's wires and stuff all over the place. There are some bulldozers clearing things but it's really not an inhabitable space. Now, for the people of Homs, I think there's been extraordinary damage. This was one of the places where the war took a very, very ugly turn, took a very sectarian turn. It's going to be a very difficult journey. And many people told me it's going to be much easier to rebuild these destroyed streets and buildings, that actually to make Homs whole once again as a community.

BLOCK: When you talk to people in Homs, Patrick, what were the attitudes toward both the rebel fighters and the Syrian government and the Syrian army?

MCDONNELL: You know, it's a peculiar position being in a place like Homs or anywhere in government-controlled Syria talking to people. Frankly, people are very hesitant to talk to foreign reporters who are about their sympathy for the rebels. However, reading between the lines, it's clear the city is still extremely divided between loyalists and anti-government camps. And it is deep, deep bitterness. And the notion of reconciliation is still very, very far off, although that is kind of the word that government officials repeat over and over again. But even they recognize that that's a bit of an illusory goal at this point.

BLOCK: That's Patrick McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times talking about the return of civilians to the Old City of Homs in Syria. Patrick, thank you so much.

MCDONNELL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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