Termed “the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation”, what started as a peaceful uprising in one of the cornerstones of the Middle East, soon turned into a complex and bloody civil war that displaced millions and threatens to destabilise the entire region.
Return to Homs is the story of a group of young Syrian activists calling for change in a country torn apart. They sing, they laugh, they smoke cigarettes and tell jokes. And they fire rocket launchers through holes in walls at enemy tanks.
The film begins in March 2011. The Arab Spring is in full force and a tide of revolution is sweeping across the Middle East. A charismatic 20-year old called Abdul Basset Saroot rallies disaffected crowds in the city of Homs with rousing songs and chants about freedom and the traitor Bashar. There are no women in sight. Determined to resist the might of the Syrian army, the protestors turn to armed resistance to defend their corner of Homs against the army. The mood is initially buoyant, but jovial moments become increasingly precious as the horror of war sets in.
One particularly chilling scene shows Basset singing a new song he has composed for the rallies to his friend on Skype. Starting low and melodious, his voice rises to a chorus: “To become a martyr, Father, has been my dream for years.” While an undercurrent of religion flows through the film in the calls of the bereft to God and the visits of the young men to the mosques, there is no sign of the reported religious fundamentalism in armed groups that has lead to widespread concern in Western nations.
The act of recording events is part of the narrative. Shaky handheld footage punctuates wide panoramic shots of empty streets and burning buildings. Another young man, Ossama Al Homsi, is constantly filming. There are tense moments when the rebels have to drive at night with no lights across dangerous ground, or run between buildings for fear of sniper fire. There are grippingly gruesome moments when medical emergencies are performed in what look like makeshift hospitals, blood and drips and panicked relatives adding to the confusion.
Ossama is injured in a blast. Spitting blood and full of shrapnel, he is taken to be operated on. One of the most poignant moments comes when he has recovered consciousness and silently probes his bloody bandaged hand, asking in hand signals how many fingers he has lost.
Optimism turns to bitter disillusionment, as the UN observers arrive in Homs, bulky with flak jackets and helmets, surrounded by a crowd of locals leading them through the decimated streets. Basset tells his friend that they only stayed 30 minutes in Homs, not nearly enough time to see all the city. He has a new song for them. “Your protocol Annan is killing us, your observers are causing death. Kofi Annan, what are you waiting for?”
Almost as disturbing as the blood and bodies, is the complete and total annihilation of the city of Homs. Entire neighborhoods are in ruins, street after empty street piled with rubble. The rebels knock holes in walls of entire streets of houses, enabling them to move around without being exposed to sniper fire.
Capturing the siege of one of the pivotal areas of this protracted conflict, the film is all the more poignant given the recent rebel retreat and army takeover of Homs in May.
For the rest of the world watching the conflict from the outside, Return to Homs gives a painfully personal account of the characters inside the “rebel forces” – ordinary guys living through extraordinary times. It is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, incredibly brave and beautifully executed.
Basset receives a serious leg wound on his return to Homs to help his besieged comrades. Lying on a bed, glazed and feverish, his words ring with an ominous prescience. “For God’s sake, don’t let the blood of the martyrs be in vain.”
To find out where and when you can watch Return to Homs, take a look at the film’s website here.