Middle East

Siblings reunited with family after surviving Homs siege

This YouTube grab shows Antoinette Fares hugging her sister in Homs. (The Daily Star/YouTube grab)

HOMS, Syria: Antoinette Fares lost nearly half her weight during the hellish siege that she and her brother Sobei endured in Homs’ Old City because they didn’t want to be a burden on relatives.

Before the army blockaded the area two years ago, she weighed 77 kilos, but she now weighs only 45.

“I took in my clothes myself,” the 66-year-old said, pointing to her tracksuit with a sad smile on her tired face.

Sobei, aged 66, lost 27 kilos as they hung on in the Christian district of Bustan al-Diwan, where the stairs leading to their dim apartment are crowded with boxes and water cans.

Cloistered in their home despite daily bombardment and raging battles, the siblings rode out the siege until its bitter end last week, when the last rebels left as part of a deal with the government.

A U.N.-brokered deal in February led to hundreds of civilians being evacuated, but Antoinette and Sobei insisted on staying put.

Last week, some 2,000 people, most of them rebels, became the last to leave the siege. Sobei and Antoinette stayed, and watched how the army retook control.

They spent the entire siege sleeping in their living room, because the bedroom dangerously overlooked the street.

“I wanted to die at home,” says Antoinette, from whose house soldiers could be seen replacing the rebel groups.

She and Sobei spoke with dignity, despite the hardship they endured.

“We didn’t want to be a burden, not even for our loved ones. We preferred to stay at home,” said Sobei.

Like thousands of others during the siege, they survived on supplies of wheat, rice and bulgur, supplemented by tomatoes and parsley that they planted in pots in the corridor outside the flat.

But, after most of the civilians left in February, life got even worse.

“We would pick weeds growing on the streets, and we would mix them with bulgur. We would eat that three times a day,” said Antoinette, for whom meat had become a distant dream.

Starving rebels from another neighborhood, also under siege, twice stole their provisions of fat, wheat and oil.

“We had hidden them behind wooden planks, but they still found them,” Sobei said.

A carpenter, he was proud to show off the techniques he used to heat tea and coffee.

He would dip a swab of cotton in arak and light it to make a small fire.

He also made candles from blocks of red wax that he had stored up from the start of the revolt against President Bashar Assad three years ago.

After three years without running water, supply was restored to the neighborhood Sunday, after the last rebels had withdrawn to the north of Homs province.

During the siege, rebels would bring them water from the well, which they would boil on a makeshift stove that would be kept burning using branches collected from the streets.

Despite being holed up for two years, Antoinette and Sobei did not communicate often with the rebels.

“We’d just say good morning and good evening to each other,” explained Sobei.

Cut off from the world, without electricity or telephones, the two suddenly saw the rebels packing up their belongings and their guns.

“Several of them asked me whether I had a suitcase or a bag so they could pack their stuff and take it with them,” Antoinette said, “but I didn’t.”

Displaced civilians started trickling back into the neighborhood and the siblings were reunited with their sister, whom they hadn’t seen throughout the siege.

“It was very emotional. ... She had grown older,” Antoinette said, as she nervously played with her thin graying hair and her eyes brimmed with tears.

Antoinette is a smoker and had no cigarettes for more than a year. As she puffed on one, it was clear she enjoyed every moment.

“I haven’t yet managed to realize what we’ve gone through,” she said.

A little bell hanging in their living room rang, announcing a visit by Antoinette and Sobei’s nephew and his wife, whom they had not seen since June 2012.

The two women embraced each other, as Antoinette wept again. She then served coffee and arranged two little plants on the table.

One of the plants was decorated with plastic Easter eggs, while the other had red ribbons.

“We’ve passed this test, but nothing yet feels normal,” says Antoinette, who has insomnia.

“It will take time,” both for the siblings and for Homs, Sobei says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2014, on page 8.




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