Syria's Homs rebels relieved after exit

Beirut - Syrian rebels who evacuated Homs after a two-year siege and daily bombing are rediscovering the simple joy of eating well and resting. But many feel far from home and dream of return.

"In the last months of the siege, all we had left to eat were the leaves off the trees," says Abul Joud, an activist and native of Homs' Old City.

"Now, after all that hardship, the guys are eating eight meals a day, and sleep a lot, trying to recover."

"It's really funny, we were happy even to have onions!" he laughed.

"We were munching onions like apples, and kept asking for more," he told AFP via the Internet, after the evacuation of 2 000 people, mainly rebels, from the city to the northern countryside of Homs province.

"We had all thought we were going to die, and it felt like coming back to life," he added, speaking from the opposition-held town of Dar al-Kabireh.

But Abul Joud said after two years under siege in Homs, his friends felt out of place.

"We walk through the market and wonder how all the people we see just went about their normal lives, while we were under the bombs."

Now almost entirely under government control, Homs was once dubbed the "capital of the revolution" because of the vigour of its peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad at the beginning of the uprising in March 2011.

It was also where the revolt first militarised.

Hajj Ayman was among those evacuated under an unprecedented deal allowing opposition fighters to withdraw with their weapons to the countryside.

He used to sell car parts and owned a cake factory, but the revolution turned him into a poet. He wrote the lyrics for several protest chants that became known across the Arab world.

"But the regime didn't understand the language of song and poetry, and with its violence, it pushed us into taking up arms," Hajj Ayman said via the Internet.

'Most of Homs is still empty'

As relieved as they are, the rebels say they already long to return to Homs.

"We exited the Old City, where I am from, in order to reorganise our ranks," said Hajj Ayman.

While the government has allowed some civilians to return to the Old City, "most of Homs is still empty", he said.

Homs city has seen some of the worst displacement in Syria's conflict, with hundreds of thousands of families forced to flee in the past three years.

"We plan to return home, and we will do this by fighting the regime in areas under its control," he added.

Among those who were evacuated, most were wounded, but around 100 were suffering serious injuries for which there is no treatment in northern Homs, Hajj Ayman said.

"In the north of Homs province, all you have are field doctors and field hospitals," he said.

"We have gone from a small siege to a big siege, surrounded still by army troops, unable to evacuate the wounded to hospitals in neighbouring countries."

Another 160 people who left the siege weeks before the deal, hoping for release, are still being held by the authorities in a school in Homs city.

Abul Hareth al-Khalidi, a cleric who was jailed for five years before the uprising and then again during it, spoke emotionally about the evacuation.

He helped negotiate the deal to get the rebels safe passage, but described weeping on the bus as he left the devastated neighbourhoods of the Old City.

"I know the return to Homs will take a long time," Abul Hareth told AFP via the Internet.

"Every time I speak to my mother [by telephone] she cries, and says she never had the chance to enjoy my release" from prison, he said.

But he says he believes Homs is still an icon of the revolt, "even now that we are displaced".
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