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‘Return to Homs:’ inside Syria’s nightmare

The siege of Homs continues for more than a year and a half, with reports of residents eating grass

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

Through the gun barrel and the bullet holes, you see the destruction of a Syrian city and its morphing from “the capital of the revolution” into Srebrenica of the Middle East. The piles of rubble and the trembling graveyards, the crying of the old men and the solemn faces of the fighters, all come together in Talal Derki’s documentary “Return to Homs,” that recently won World Cinema Grand Jury prize at the Sundance film festival.

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For most of the 90 minutes of the documentary, filmed between 2011 and 2013, the filmmakers and cinematographers are often caught in the crossfire as they rove through the rubble-reduced neighborhoods of Khalidiye and Bayada in the old city of Homs. “I felt death could be close,” Derki tells Al Arabiya News, adding: “but I had a feeling that my moment is not here yet, so I followed my camera to tell the story of the people of Homs, how they dream and despair, and how they are bidding farewell to each other.”

From Soccer to the Battlefield

The story itself starts with two activists, Abdel Basset Saroot and Osama “Homsi”. Saroot (19), a soccer champion and a goalkeeper for the “Karama” Club in Syria, joins in 2011 what had started as a peaceful uprising against the four-decade-old Assad regime in Syria.

As new rounds of Syrian peace talks resume in Geneva, it is striking that over 40 international representatives have failed last week at even allowing food and medical supplies inside Homs

Joyce Karam

He is enthusiastic and stubborn by nature, found his voice in the early protests, and led thousands singing and chanting for the dignity of the Syrians and their freedom. As the protests were met by force, and with Saroot on the run after losing family members under their demolished apartment in Homs, the former goalkeeper abandons his soccer gloves for good, and embraces the armed fight. His attachment to his rifle is that of a kid to a new toy, it also embodies the evolution of the Syrian uprising and its transformation into an armed conflict.

Saroot’s childhood friend, Osama, is his antithesis. A calm and mellow activist, he wears his messenger bag and walks the neighborhoods of Homs with a camera phone and a laptop. His mission is to show the world the ravaging war in his beloved city.

Organic telling

His photos of the destruction near the Khaled Ibn Waleed mosque and inside historic churches, or of the parents mourning their kids, and of the gruesome morgues kept by the regime, tell very organically Homs’ struggle. Osama, unlike Saroot, did not believe in taking arms against the regime. Even as he was injured, he stuck to his camera as his only weapon, until he was detained by the regime’s security and his whereabouts remain unknown.

The detention of Osama, and the dire conditions inside Homs, shake Saroot to the core. In 2013, we see him aging significantly as he defies days of starvation trying to return into Homs through underground tunnels. After losing many of his friends on the battle front, even his chants become more religious.

Breaking the silence

For the film’s director Talal Derki, there is “no one message for the film.” He says “I entered into this with many questions that I still have unanswered.” Perhaps the jolting effect that the documentary has in introducing the Syrian conflict and the fighters to the viewer is a key accomplishment for the writers, and producer Orwa Nyrabia.

In “Return to Homs” we get to see Saroot at his best and his worst. At one point he is rallying fighters, at another he is worn out and trying to catch a nap under gunfire. There is the humor when the rebels attempt to exchange tobacco, despite the snipers’ fire. The same snipers who shot one of the cinematographer’s cousins as they were trying to break the siege. The film puts you at an unprecedented proximity from the conflict. You are with Saroot in deserted bedrooms and inside the closets that transformed into shooting stations, and you are there in the tunnels as he tries time and again to break the siege and return to the city. Saroot’s resilience is insurmountable. He escapes death countless times, and lives to fight another day.

As new rounds of Syrian peace talks resume in Geneva, it is striking that over 40 international representatives have failed last week at even allowing food and medical supplies inside Homs. The siege continues for more than a year and a half, with reports of residents eating grass and “anything that comes out of the ground.”

Derki wants the film to reach those outside Syria, and to “break the deafening silence over the killings happening in broad daylight.” Meanwhile Saroot remains inside Homs, convinced that the conflict will inevitably come to an end and that his enemies are not “immortal.”

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.