In Syria's Yarmouk, a pigeon keeper and his dog held out through years of war

Reuters , Sunday 14 Oct 2018

Abu Nimr
Abu Nimr, 36, stands near his pigeons in Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus, Syria October 10, 2018. Picture taken October 10, 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

The Yarmouk district in Damascus has switched hands many times in Syria's war: from rebels, to Islamic State militants, and back to government forces. But Abu Nimr did not budge.

He has remained in his family home with his dog through bombs, siege, and fierce battles for more than seven years, raising pigeons on his roof even as people fled in droves.

Since the army clawed back the enclave around five months ago, he has helped clear heaps of rubble from the streets and repair abandoned houses.

"My siblings and I lived in this building. They're all married. They left so their kids could go to school," Abu Nimr told Reuters in the Yarmouk Palestinian camp in the Syrian capital.

"I thought I'd stay here alone, keep an eye on the family property, and hoped things would be resolved within days. But seven years passed, God kept me patient."

Abu Nimr, who is originally Palestinian, owned a shop selling sweets like baklawa before the conflict.

At the onset, he stored food from the empty houses of his relatives. As supplies dwindled, he often slept hungry.

"I took a decision seven years ago that weapons are not my thing. Bloodshed is not easy," he said.

Abu Nimr, 36, did odd jobs over the years and spent time with his dog Balo. "He was my friend through the siege, and I relied on him to guard the house when I went out."

When the fighting got too close, he would hide in the furthest room with a hammer in case he had to dig himself out.

The violence has turned his neighbourhood into a ghost town, with twisted metal and collapsed walls still blocking some streets. Others are closed off with signs warning of landmines.

By the time the last battle came this year, after scores of residents had escaped or died, only 16 people were left in his neighbourhood.

But he refused to leave. "The people fled? The warplanes dropped bombs? The militants entered? It doesn't matter."

Now, Abu Nimr wants to bring life back to Yarmouk and hopes people will be able to return soon.

Former neighbours and residents call him from other parts of Syria or abroad, asking him to check on their homes. They send him some money to clean up and repair damages.

State employees and volunteers have opened all of the main roads, he said. "We help with what we can."

"Praise God, now things are much better." If not for the war, Abu Nimr believes he would be married with kids now. "If people come back and it gets better, I will re-open a sweets shop right away.

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