War-scarred ruins of Syria's Homs inspire artists

AFP , Tuesday 9 Feb 2016

A handout picture obtained from the production department of Syrian movie "It's Raining in Homs", shows actors playing a scene in the ruins of the Old City of Homs on August 27, 2014. In summer 2014, director Joud Said decided to set his film "It's Raining in Homs" in the ruins, just three months after the last rebels left the area under a truce deal following a lengthy siege. (Photo: AFP)

Devastated by 20 months of combat between regime forces and rebel fighters, the haunting ruins of the Old City of Homs now serve as inspiration for some Syrian artists.

In summer 2014, director Joud Said decided to set his film "It's Raining in Homs" in the ruins, just three months after the last rebels left the area under a truce deal following a lengthy siege.

"We were preparing a film about three people in the siege, and we planned to film it on a set," he told AFP.

"But when the agreement (with the rebels) happened, we moved everything to Homs, with the real backdrop and real tragedy," said the 35-year-old director.

Homs in central Syria was nicknamed the "capital of the revolution" by opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, and saw massive demonstrations against his rule after the uprising began in March 2011.

When the uprising transformed into a war after a government crackdown, the army seized virtually all of Homs except its Old City, which remained a rebel bastion from December 2012 until May 2014.

During that period, the government imposed a siege on the area, and fighting wrought massive destruction, grinding buildings into scarred concrete shells and wiping away signs of life.

Said's film is set in the last three months of the siege.

It tells the story of a woman and her sister who enter the Old City during an evacuation of civilians, and stay there with the help of a priest to search for their brother.

"The ruins are one of the characters in the film because they show what human beings are capable of in terms of material destruction and massacres, not only against other human beings but also our culture, our heritage," said the filmmaker.

Said -- who won the best Arab film award at the 2015 edition of the Cairo International Film Festival -- spent 100 days with his crew filming in the ruins, with only soldiers for company.

"These ruins tell the story of people's memories. The presence of those who disappeared can still be felt on the balconies, through the windows and even through the curtains," he said.

"We don't know what they have become, refugees, perhaps dead."

Syria's army has been accused of most of the destruction of Homs, in a bid to root out the rebels who were entrenched inside.

But Said is not interested in apportioning blame.

"We, the Syrians, are all guilty, all responsible for our own misfortunes," he said.

"It doesn't matter who did what, where and how. It's up to us to find the ways to heal both the wounds on our souls and our stones."

More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict, which has also displaced more than half the country's population.

Other artists too have turned to the ruins for their work, including painter Yara Issa, 26, a Homs native.

Originally from Bab Sebaa, a district of the Old City, Issa was forced to move to Damascus after her house was destroyed.

"All my paintings are inspired by the war," she told AFP.

"People killed, explosions, shelling... I use cold colours that suggest sadness," she said of her abstract works.

"Syrian artists paint so that people won't forget the consequences of the war, so they remember the past," she added.

Photographer Jaafar Merhi chose destroyed buildings and rubble as a backdrop for wedding pictures, that show young couples standing in deserted, bombed-out streets.

"The first time I suggested photographing a couple here they were take aback. When I explain to them that I want to show love exists despite the ruins, some accept, and others don't." he said.

A fierce supporter of the Syrian government, the 22-year-old blames "terrorists" for the devastation and says the army did its duty in retaking the area by force.

Merhi has photographed three weddings in the ruins, most recently that of 18-year-old bride Rana and her 27-year-old groom Hassan Youssef, a soldier.

In one of the shots the couple -- Rana in a white dresss and Youssef in military fatigues -- are seen locked in an embrace on the upper floor of a pockmarked building shorn of its facade and windows.

"I agreed to have my photos taken in this devastated area because one day I will show them to my children to explain that despite all this sadness, life goes on," said Rana.

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