LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now we're going to take a close look at a city in Syria that has been ravaged by war. Homs was at the center of opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Fighting raged there until government forces retook control. NPR's Alice Fordham has now gained rare access to that city, and she met a local architect who dreams of how the city will rise again.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The first thing you notice about the old city of Homs is the destruction. For two years, this place was a bastion of rebel fighters besieged by government forces, and every building has holes ripped in it by shells, air strikes, bullets. The second thing you notice is the construction. People are turning these wounded buildings back into homes and shops. Some are on their own, sweeping out debris from storefronts. Others, like these guys mixing cement, are working on a United Nations rehabilitation project of the downtown's old city.
My guide here is architect Marwa al-Sabouni, who's written a book about how the war relates to the way the city developed. She is passionate about the layers of history here. She takes me to the main mosque.
MARWA AL-SABOUNI: (Foreign language spoken) The grand mosque, OK? Because the biggest mosque at the area here, it was originally a temple for the sun, then a church. Then half of it was sold to the Muslims, and the church and the mosque shared one building.
FORDHAM: She points out Roman columns that were re-used in the construction of the mosque.
SABOUNI: This is an amazing thing about the older architecture there. They didn't, you know - any one didn't cancel the other. This is a harmony that was built and it was lived.
FORDHAM: Sabouni is a small, energetic woman who stops now to pray. For her, this old part of Homs, with its mix of churches and mosques, mansions and apartments, orange trees and squares, is a kind of architectural embodiment of peace and co-existence, of calm.
SABOUNI: Everything is so studied in a way that will give you calmness to your eye and to your mind and, consequently, to your spirits. You will enter there and you just have a calming experience.
FORDHAM: But elsewhere in Homs, there's an opposite of this - basically, slums. Now, the decades of repression by the Assad regime are well-known. But to Sabouni, these slums are also a key to understanding why war eventually broke out here. In the last hundred years, Homs expanded fast, as did other cities in Syria. Rural people became the new industrial working class and lived on the fringes of the city.
SABOUNI: Afterwards, you know, it just snowballed into what we have now. We have just slums around the cities where 40 percent of the people - population were living prior to the war.
FORDHAM: And there wasn't just a gap between rich and poor. Because the new arrivals tended to live with their family or friends from their old villages, the slums were ghettoized.
SABOUNI: People were just categorized into one corner or into one group or into one slum.
FORDHAM: Geographical origins?
SABOUNI: Yeah, geographical origin, social class, religion. All these categorizations are evident in the slumming around the cities.
FORDHAM: As we sit in a small English bookstore Sabouni runs, we talk about her book, "The Battle For Home." In it, she contends these divisions fueled sectarianism and they eroded social cohesion, so people were unwilling to find peaceful solutions when unrest began.
SABOUNI: When you have something that is strong and cohesive among people, when you have something to preserve, when you have something to care about, not to lose, you - people may find alternative ways of, you know, expressing or alternative ways to solve their problems.
FORDHAM: War erupted, and it did ravage Homs. Sabouni says 60 percent of the buildings here are uninhabitable. And just as she traces the roots of the conflict into those badly-planned slums, she sees careful, inclusive reconstruction as essential to a peaceful future.
For more context on this, I turn to a man who crafted the economic policy of Assad before the war. His name is Abdullah al-Dardari, now working with the United Nations.
ABDULLAH AL-DARDARI: Yes, of course there was a - dramatic errors, actually.
FORDHAM: And Dardari gets to a question that is crucial now to the future of Syria. Assuming Assad wins the war - and he seems to have the upper hand - can the Syrian state rebuild its relationship with people from rebellious areas like Homs? Dardari says that depends as much on inclusive reconstruction as it does on the trappings of democracy.
DARDARI: So we talk about the need for very good elections, but actually - that is important. But more important is the sense of safety and security in returning and the equity and equitability of this reconstruction program. I need to feel that I am equal to everyone else and my chances are equal to everyone else.
FORDHAM: And is that going to happen? Dardari won't answer that, so let's go back to Homs. Sure, there's reconstruction in the famous old city. But in other neighborhoods which were held by the opposition not a brick has been laid, not a soul has been allowed back, and the destruction goes on as far as the eye can see, block after brutalized block. Officials in Homs won't give an interview, but regular people here are happy to talk.
And they say poignant things. They speak of a pervasive melancholy here, of relationships severed as people chose sides in the war, of skepticism of reconciliation efforts and also of rebuilding the city. Rasha al-Mustafa is a recent graduate working in a drugstore.
RASHA AL-MUSTAFA: (Speaking Arabic).
FORDHAM: "Of course Homs is not like before," she says.
MUSTAFA: (Speaking Arabic).
FORDHAM: "And yes," she says, "thank God there is reconstruction in the old city. But there needs to be so much more - hospitals, schools, housing for everyone."
Alice Fordham, NPR News, Homs.
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