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Revolutionary spirit gone as Syria's Homs votes

HOMS, Syria: It was in Baba Amr, in Syria's Homs, that the armed uprising against Bashar al-Assad erupted, but with people turning out to vote Tuesday as the president sought re-election, the spirit of revolution seemed to have vanished.

A loudspeaker outside the Hassan al-Sabet school, the district's sole polling station, blared out the words of a patriotic song: "We salute this land of Syria, its heroes and its army."

Inside are two queues, one for women, the other for men. For the most part, the women use the private voting booths, but the men tick their ballots in plain sight.

"I came to vote for the good candidate," said 18-year-old Muamina Shurawi, dressed in a long black cloak and referring to Assad.

"Homs may have once been the 'capital of the revolution,' but today it is clearly the city of the election," she added.

At the beginning of the uprising three years ago, Homs got its nickname because of the massive anti-Assad demonstrations that were brutally crushed by the regime.

It has seen some of the worst violence since the outbreak of the uprising and, for almost two years, anti-regime fighters and residents were trapped by a suffocating army siege of the Old City.

They were evacuated last month under an unprecedented deal involving a major rebel coalition and Iran, a strong regime backer.

The end of the siege brought the Old City back under regime control, and many residents who had fled returned home.

The ballot box at Hassan al-Sabet school is getting full, and an electoral official has to shake it so that more voters can slip their ballots in.

"By midday (0900 GMT), we already counted 1,465 voters, and more are arriving," the official said.

Governor Talal al-Barazi told AFP that, by 3:30 pm, 597,000 of the 1.18 million registered voters in Homs province had cast ballots.

In the city itself, only the Waer district remains in rebel hands, and polling places were set up at the edges of it.

Elsewhere in the province, Barazi said it was only in the opposition-held towns of Talbisseh and Rastan that voting could not take place.

"Homs has regained its calmness and is now the city of peace," he said.

At Homs University, the former bastion of the uprising, it's exam day.

In the cafeteria, there is no talk of the past for Saly, a 21-year-old who wants to become a dietician.

"I vote for the one I know, and that's Bashar al-Assad. I've never even heard the others speak," she said, referring to the two other candidates, Hassan al-Nuri and Maher al-Hajjar.

At a neighbouring table, Alaa al-Omar, 28, a fourth-year student of education, expresses satisfaction with the election.

"This time, there is a choice among Assad, Nuri and Hajjar, or one can even not vote," he said before heading to the examination hall.

Those not in favour of the election hold their tongues, or turn their heads, when asked about it.

On Hama Street, in the devastated Old City, an immense photo of Assad looks down from a half-destroyed building, its motto declaring: "Together, we will rebuild."

This district has been totally empty since last month's evacuations, except for the Christian neighbourhood of Hamidiyeh, where the pastor of the Syrian Orthodox church has set up a polling station.

"This is a message to all the people who were in the Old City and bore arms: 'You see, there are three candidates. Choose the one you want, turn over your weapons, regain your senses and we will rebuild Syria'," said Father Zahri Khazaal.

Many of those who fled the fighting have taken refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, just a few kilometres (miles) to the west.

Speaking in the town of Arsal, a militant who escaped Homs has a different view of the election.

"The people here feel happy that although we were forced to leave our homes, we will not be forced to take part in this blood election and vote for Assad," said the man, identifying himself as Ahmad.

"In that sense, we are free now, even though we watched Homs, the capital of the revolution, falling from our hands."

 

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Summary

It was in Baba Amr, in Syria's Homs, that the armed uprising against Bashar al-Assad erupted, but with people turning out to vote Tuesday as the president sought re-election, the spirit of revolution seemed to have vanished.

At the beginning of the uprising three years ago, Homs got its nickname because of the massive anti-Assad demonstrations that were brutally crushed by the regime.

It has seen some of the worst violence since the outbreak of the uprising and, for almost two years, anti-regime fighters and residents were trapped by a suffocating army siege of the Old City.

The ballot box at Hassan al-Sabet school is getting full, and an electoral official has to shake it so that more voters can slip their ballots in.

Governor Talal al-Barazi told AFP that, by 3:30 pm, 597,000 of the 1.18 million registered voters in Homs province had cast ballots.

Speaking in the town of Arsal, a militant who escaped Homs has a different view of the election.


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