Mar 20th 2021

‘Every day is war’ – a decade of slow suffering and destruction in Syria

by Ammar Azzouz


Ammar Azzouz Short-term Research Associate, University of Oxford

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless and displaced.

Abduljalil Achraf, Author provided


Abduljalil sent me a photo of his ruined home in Homs, Syria. “It is the third floor”, he told me over WhatsApp. The building still stands but it looks like an empty skeleton. Most of its facade has been destroyed, while piles of debris surround it. Residents have not been able to return, as they fear it could collapse at any time.

For a decade now, conflict, violence and destruction have reshaped the lives of millions of Syrians since the start of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011. Abduljalil is just one of more than 12 million people who have had to flee their homes. While 5.6 million people have fled Syria to find refuge in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, 6.6 million people have been internally displaced.

Over the past five years, I have been researching the relationship between urban violence and the impact it has on cities. My research has been mainly focused on my home city of Homs where I conducted a series of interviews with local people and examined the way Homs has been transformed in the past decade. The conflict has created a disorientating experience for many Homsis. People have lost some of their most cherished places, as well as many of their loved ones.

I want my research to help people understand how it feels to be forcibly uprooted. What does it mean to see your own country getting destroyed, to see your home – the place that gave you a sense of safety, security, belonging and identity – in ruins?

These questions are personal to me. I too was forced to leave my home in Homs when fighting broke out and tanks entered my city. I have not been able to return since 2011. From afar, I have seen my country crumble into ruins. I have watched the people I love struggle daily, losing their homes, their dreams, their friends and their future. I have lost people – people I coudn’t even say goodbye to.

As a displaced person, my life moves in parallels. Walking in London where I now live, the images of destroyed homes and shattered lives are always at the forefront of my mind. I left Syria, but Syria didn’t leave me. My life, like the lives of millions of us, has been terribly damaged – just like our cities. The past decade has been a story of loss and suffering, a landscape of grief and sorrow.

Homs as it was

Before the conflict started, Homs was known as a city of diversity where different communities from different religious and sectarian backgrounds lived together. It had a population of 800,000 people, but yet there was a strong sense of community – it felt as if everyone knew everyone else.

The  busy city centre of Homs before the fighting began.
A bustling Homs before the conflict started in 2011.

Ammar Azzouz, Author provided


Many neighbourhoods were divided along sectarian lines. Some were mostly inhabited by Alawites or Sunnis while others were mixed with Alawites, Sunnis and Christians living together.

It was a city of peace, quiet and simplicity. Its people famous for their sense of humour and generosity. The memory of this thriving and cosmopolitan city, makes the present reality even more difficult to swallow.

Abduljalil said the memories of old times haunt his former home like a ghost. He said:

I remember the stars I put on the roof in my bedroom … but even the stars fell.

Abduljalil and his family had no choice but to flee their home in 2013 fearing, for their lives. Their neighbourhood, Jouret al-Shayah, at the heart of Homs, was heavily targeted.

Other cities including Mosul, Beirut, Aleppo and Raqqa have suffered too. Cities have turned into battlefields. Wars are no longer fought outside densely populated areas, but in neighbourhoods. The urbanisation of the military has made everyday life a target.

Even cultural heritage sites have been targeted. The shelling of places such as the Khaled Ibn al Walid Mosque in Homs, the destruction of monuments, cultural artefacts and temples in Palmyra and in the Ancient City of Aleppo shocked the world.

But this interest in the ancient monuments has overshadowed the loss people have endured to their way of living that has collapsed in the past decade – the slow suffering. Homes, bakeries, schools and hospitals have been destroyed too. But these “ordinary” spaces have rarely been brought into the conversation.

Everyday life is a battle for survival, even though the fighting in Homs has ended. For many families, food – including sugar and bread – are becoming hard to obtain. Some of the people I spoke to reported long hours waiting to get rice, while many struggle to afford food due to the country’s economic collapse. The UN has reported that around 60% of Syrians (12.4 million people) do not have regular access to safe and nutritious food.

One woman I spoke to, who asked not to be identified, lives in Mashta Al Hilu, a town between Homs and Tartus. After finishing her degree in architecture in Homs, she struggled to find a job. She told me how she felt when walking in the ruined streets. In Baba Amr she said she felt as if a “monster” had destroyed it.

Her dream is to improve her violin skills, but these dreams are on hold. She said she felt isolated, as many of her friends had left Syria or had been killed. She asked me:

Is life after war more difficult than the life at the time of war? … Every day is war.

There were hopes for change in 2011. People imagined that the future would be different. Nobody expected that Homs would be destroyed, that entire neighbourhoods would be razed to the ground, that another day could mean yet another loss.

Abduljalil and his family couldn’t rebuild their home. No charity or organisation helped them. They eventually decided to sell the ruins and rent outside the heart of the city. Abduljalil still visits his past life, his lost home. He told me: “I feel as a flower uprooted from its roots and planted in another place”.


Ammar Azzouz, Short-term Research Associate, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "English artist Damien Hirst’s latest project, “The Currency”, is an artwork in two forms. Its physical form is 10,000 unique hand-painted A4 sheets covered in colourful dots. In the same way as paper money, each sheet includes a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot and – in place of a serial number – a small individual message. The second part of the artwork is that each of these hand-painted sheets has a corresponding NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership which exist on the secure online ledgers that are known as blockchains. ---- The way that “The Currency” works is that collectors will not be buying the physical artwork immediately. Instead, they will pay US$2,000 (£1,458) for the NFT and then have a year to decide whether they want the digital or the physical version. Once the collector selects one, the other will be destroyed. ---- So what is going on here, and what does it tell us about art and money?"
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ellison was an abstract expressionist painter, who, having come to New York City from West Texas in 1962, was as he said “unable to find traction” as a painter. At the same time, he began collecting ceramic objects and educating himself about this field of art as he went along. In 2009 he bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 300 extraordinary examples of American ceramics, spanning the years 1876 through 1956. Since then, Ellison has gifted to the Museum over 600 works – including a significant collection of European art pottery in 2013, and most recently over 125 modern and contemporary clay vessels and objects – making the Museum one of the most significant repositories of Art Pottery in the world. ---- The current exhibition presents nearly 80 pieces drawn from Ellison’s latest donation, and it is a thoroughly captivating show; even where (or perhaps especially where) the works are outlandish, bizarre, sometimes almost monstrous, but nonetheless enthralling."
Jul 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the course of England’s journey to the Euro 2020 final, one of the most fascinating plays has been happening just off the pitch. Whenever the TV camera cuts to the team’s manager Gareth Southgate, he is occasionally seen standing alone on the edge of the field, urging his team on. ---- But most of the time he is deep in conversation with his assistant Steve Holland. ---- A recent study of English football culture points to a shift away from what the authors term “Beckhamisation”, after the former England captain and Manchester United star player David Beckham – a popular and instantly recognisable symbol of that period of football history (though, it is not suggested the culture was his creation). ---- During the 1990s, the study claims, this “Beckhamisation” saw high octane management practices imported from the corporate world into football. ---- In recent years, this has been replaced by “Southgatism”, a leadership style which that study describes as “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”. "
Jun 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting an exhibition devoted to an in-depth review of Paul Cézanne’s drawings. If there is any criticism to be made of this extraordinary show, it is that it is frankly overwhelming: with roughly 280 pencil, ink and gouache drawings and watercolors (and even a handful of oil paintings), there is so much to take in that two or three visits to the exhibition may be required to do it justice."
Jun 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it." .... "Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions." .... "The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility."
Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."