A suburb in the city of Homs in Syria has returned to the headlines. Just a few weeks ago, an agreement was reached to finally put the guns down in Al-Wa’er and allow relief agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance to an area not reached for almost two years.
Al-Wa’er always brings vivid memories.
- It’s spring 2013 and I’m in Al-Wa’er with UNICEF.
We’re spending the night in one of the few functioning hotels in the city. For hours I’ve been trying to tuck my head under the pillow in search of little sleep and quiet away from the sounds of heavy pounding, bombing, shooting. Tonight is intense. The hotel is only miles away from an area witnessing high levels of violence, Baba A’mr.
In the morning, we drive to Al-Wa’er. It’s been sealed off, but through negotiations was opened for just a few hours so we can visit children and families who were displaced – some several times.
In the car, Shadi* my Syrian colleague says that before the crisis started in 2011, Al-Wa’er meaning “wild area” in the colloquial Syrian dialect, was an upcoming suburb of the city of Homs. As we drive in, I see unfinished apartment towers that were about to become homes for the more well-off residents of the city.
But since the crisis began and as violence escalated in several parts of the city, these towers have become a safe haven for the families seeking refuge.
On the fifth floor of one building, we meet Salima, a mother of five.
She lives in one room of an unfinished apartment, without facilities, and windows that are only hollow metal frames. Sitting on a mattress on the floor, Salima tells us of her husband who disappeared a few months ago when they fled their house in Baba A’mr, she hasn’t heard from him since and with tears in her eyes she says, “I just hope he is safe”.
In the basement below, a school is set up in what once was to become parking for expensive cars. Maria (6) shares a desk with Ahmad (9) and holding hands they start singing to welcome us.
Reema, their teacher, tells us that teaching is where she finds sanctuary. She bursts into tears as she tells us that the very same morning she got news that her brother was killed. I ask her, “You still made it here?”
“Yes, this is where I find peace and distraction, with the children”.
Reema has been displaced four times. She says if violence continues to intensify, she does not know where else to go and even if she wanted to she could not, as the place was sealed off.
- A few years have passed and people continue to endure the consequences of this brutal conflict.
Last September, 19 children, celebrating E’id and playing in one of the few playgrounds left in Al-Wa’er, were killed.
For over two years, the displaced people in Al-Wae’r witnessed intense daily clashes, and ongoing rocket and mortar attacks that caused many casualties. UNICEF’s executive director warned in August 2013 that the situation of women and children in the area was “deteriorating”.
In a plea he called on all parties to facilitate immediate safe access to families trapped in the area so that humanitarian agencies like UNICEF would be able to provide life-saving assistance, and allow trapped families to leave in safety and in dignity.
- Back to my spring of 2013 in Al Wa’er
We take off while surrounded by children everywhere, and a man taps on the window of our car. We step out to see him. He’s crying as he tries to tell us the story of his two boys aged 12 and 14 who also disappeared. “They have been gone for months. I just want to know they’re all right.” His name is Abu Wissam.
- Over a year later, in the autumn of 2014, I’m back in Homs.
Al-Wa’er by then was completely off limits. In the same hotel, we meet a delegation from Al-Wa’er, representing people from the area. They are working on an agreement that would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.
More than one year later an agreement is reached allowing UNICEF and other relief agencies to deliver much needed supplies to the people of Al-Wa’er. Trucks loaded with food parcels, wheat flower, high energy biscuits for children, hygiene kits, medical supplies, school bags and sets of winter clothing went into the area with an aim to reach about 60,000 people in desperate need of assistance.
As I watched footage of the aid deliveries, I wondered about the fates of the people I met in al-Wa’er: did Abu Wisam find his boys, did Salima reunite with her husband and does Reema still teach? Above all, I wondered if they were even still in al-Wa’er…
*All names were changed.
Juliette Touma is a communication and media specialist at the UNICEF Regional Office in Amman. She visited Syria several times since 2012.