Homs, Syria: Looking for OFWs in a Shattered City
If any city has become emblematic of Syria’s version of the “Arab Spring,” it is Homs. This city, an opposition stronghold, was subjected to a 26-day siege by the Syrian Army in February. The estimates of how many people perished vary, with the city’s Chief of Police admitting to some 3,000 dead and the western press reporting twice or more that number.
The signs of war are fresh as we enter the city, which lies some 170 kilometers from Damascus. There is no one on the streets at high noon, and Baath University, where some of the most bitter fighting took place, is deserted. The streets are littered with trash, and block after block of apartment buildings we pass show no signs of life. The asphalted roads are rough, being imprinted with the tracks of tanks that were used deployed to subdue the resistance. We pass the burned-out hulk of an armed personnel carrier.
At a roundabout where a statue of the current president’s father, Hafez Assad, casts a benign look at us a la Kim Il Sung, we encounter our first checkpoint. Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs examine our papers as our driver, a Syrian who speaks perfect English named “Teddy,” explains in Arabic that we are trying to reach the police station to follow up the case of a Filipino OFW who was killed in an ambush during the fighting.
We pass two more checkpoints manned by suspicious security men carrying the ubiquitous AK-47 before we reach the police station, the front of which sports a makeshift barricade of tires, wood, and stones.
Investigating a Death
We are met by the chief investigator, a man named Tobias and we tell him that we really need to know more about the death of Mer-an Montezor, a 23-year old Filipina who was shot through the chest and killed while traveling at 11 o’clock at night with her employer and his eight-year old son at the main highway on February 24, during the last phase of the siege of the city. We also want to locate her employer and collect her back wages so we could send them to her family in the Philippines.
Tobias tells us that he helped bring Mer-an to the hospital, but all he had was the cell phone number of the employer, and this was no longer functioning. There was no number for a landline and no address for the employer, and he tells us that, for all he knew, the man and his family might have already left the city. Tobias tries to project concern and friendliness but he is obviously eager to get rid of us.
Before we leave, however, I ask if he knew if there might be more Filipino domestic workers who might have been hurt or died during the siege. Back in Damascus, Ambassador Eric Endaya had told me that there was a possibility that some OFWs apart from Me-ran Montezar could have died in Homs. Having myself heard stories of being trapped close to the fighting from Filipinas who fled Homs for the safety of the Embassy in Damascus, I could not but agree. But Tobias tells us he hasn’t heard of any. Aside from him, we have no other contact Homs for now, underlining the difficulties of finding out the fate of compatriots caught in a war zone when one does not get cooperation from the host government.
“This is very poor police work, for a guy who says he took personal charge of the girl’s case,” comments Teddy on Tobias’ work on the Montezor case as we drive away from the police station.
A People under Occupation
As we drive away from the police station, we see several clusters of people, but these soon disappear and we pass by rows and rows of apartment buildings that are deserted. We see a child running here and there, and a few adolescents walking hurriedly, but that’s it. When we come to a checkpoint we passed earlier, we are stopped again, and this time, the soldiers are more suspicious and ask more questions. They ask to see the papers of my Syrian companions and scan them for a long time, though for some reason they do not ask for my passport.
This is a city under occupation, I now realize fully. The soldiers regard the people as the enemy, and the people reciprocate. I do not see any prospect of reconciliation between the two sides. I suppress a wish to request Teddy to bring us to Bab Amr, the lower-class district that bore the brunt of the government siege. There are likely to be armed elements of the resistance there, and they might mistake our car as belonging to a government security agency.
When we finally get back to the highway after a good hour and a half in this shattered city, we all breathe a sigh of relief. One of us jokes that, with little knowledge about Southeast Asia, the soldiers probably thought I was Chinese and thus friendly to the Assad regime. Does that mean we say I am an Asian-American if we are stopped by rebel forces, I ask, and we all laugh. With Assad now isolated, with his allies for all practical purposes down to China, Russia, Iran, and Lebanon, most diplomats and foreign visitors are increasingly treated with suspicion.
An hour and a half later, we are in Tartus, off the shimmering Mediterranean Sea. People are in the streets, and even in the early afternoon, there are families taking leisurely walks in the cornice that is Tartus’ most attractive feature. This place has been largely exempt from the unrest, the reason being that the majority of people here are Allawites, the president’s people.
Tartus and Homs. Two different worlds. Two faces of the same country.
*Inq.net columnist Walden Bello is chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs in the House of Representatives, where he represents the party Akbayan.
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