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Review: Return to Homs - the capital of Syria's revolution destroyed

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Return to Homs – the capital of Syria's revolution destroyed

Directed by Talal Derki

Return to Homs was screened by Human Rights Watch on 28 March, followed by a Q&A with the producer Orwa Nyrabia.

The story told by Return to Homs is the story of the Syrian Revolution – from its start as peaceful protests against the Assad regime calling for reform, through the vicious repression of those protests and the ensuing militarisation of the revolution, to the present-day state of siege and total destruction of the country at the hands of the dictatorship.

The documentary, entirely filmed and directed by Syrians, is not the first to be produced by revolutionaries, but it is the first to receive widespread circulation across the world. It was filmed over two years from August 2011 to August 2013 as the revolution developed from peaceful protests into armed resistance.

The film tells the story of the revolution through the friendship of two young men from Homs, Abdul Basset Saroot and Ossama Al Homsi. Before the revolution began, Basset was the second best goalkeeper in Syria, touted for the national team. When the protests began they both joined the revolt, Basset leading the crowd with chants and songs against the regime, while Ossama became a media activist filming the protests and demonstrations.

The first scenes are a testimony to the genuinely popular character of Syria's revolution. We see crowds of thousands in the streets, singing and dancing for freedom and against oppression. Basset’s popularity and charisma are evident as thousands join him in song, and he is cheered and hoisted onto the shoulders of protesters wherever he goes.

The film is remarkable for its view inside the revolution. The footage of peaceful protests is interspersed with footage from the activists’ safe house where they upload videos, discuss the situation, give interviews to foreign journalists and sing songs against Assad. Basset rails against the regime, its violence and oppression and unwillingness to concede. We see the transformation of peaceful protesters into armed resistance fighters. As the violence against protesters mounts, the activists no longer wield just laptops and cameras, but AK-47s and pistols as well. Crowds no longer throng the streets, driven away by snipers and bombs. Instead they hold funeral marches for those martyred by the regime.

The resilience of the Syrian people is shown throughout. At one point the regime builds a barrier over the only road joining two pro-revolution districts in Homs, trying to prevent activists and supplies spreading between them. One of the media activists filming the scene remarks, “They don't know who they're messing with,” as a truck proceeds to drive over the barrier, and local youth on bicycles dig up the barrier with their bare hands, only stopping when they come under sniper fire.

The footage captures the desperation and isolation of the revolution as the repression mounts. Neighbourhoods are reduced to rubble, and Basset and his militia are forced to crawl house to house, waging a guerrilla war against the Syrian army’s superior firepower and aerial bombardment. Their isolation in their liberated districts, under siege and alone, reflects that of the revolution internationally.

During this Basset continues to sing and inspire those around him. His determination is phenomenal. Looking out over part of Homs completely reduced to rubble, he is asked: do you think victory is possible? Gazing out at his destroyed city, at miles and miles of destruction, he pauses for a moment, then comes the firm reply: “Yes, we will make them hate their lives, then they will leave.”

Death is frequent in the fighting. Many are injured, including Basset and Ossama. Ossama appears more visibly traumatised by his ordeal, but all the young men are affected. Despair and desperation creep in, how can it not. They have gone from being labourers, blacksmiths, factory workers, teachers and footballers, to fighting one of the most brutal and totalitarian regimes of the modern age, with a massive imbalance in firepower and support. And yet they keep fighting. And singing.

Basset is still in Homs. Still fighting under siege. Still trying to liberate his country. Orwa Nyrabia, the film’s producer, commented after the film screening, “There is a Basset in every town in Syria. I speak to many of them regularly, but the media does not talk to them or about them.” Orwa stated the mainstream narrative, that it is the regime versus Islamic fighters, is false, that the vast majority of those fighting are moderates, but they receive little or no coverage. This must change. But it will require action, action which has not been taken by many.

Orwa remarked during the Q&A, “When the West threatened to attack the Assad regime, which did not actually happen, tens of thousands marched around the world. When the regime used gas on Ghouta, and killed 1,500 people, not a single march was held anywhere.” Alongside the brutality of the regime, this memory will linger for a long time, the lack of aid given by much of humanity and its progressive forces to the Syrian people.

All progressive and anti-war activists must feel a deep shame at the lack of support for the Syrian Revolution which has left it isolated and battling the world superpowers alone. This feeling should be used to motivate, not as an excuse to ignore what is happening. There is much we can do, if we are willing to spend the energy.

The Syria Solidarity Movement is a new organisation formed to provide political and practical solidarity to the Syrian Revolution. Join it and get involved in its activities. The next action will be a global protest at the BBC on 10 May over its biased coverage of the Syrian Revolution.

Hand in Hand for Syria (HIHS) is a registered UK charity which provides humanitarian aid to refugees and those in the liberated areas of Syria. HIHS runs bakeries and hospitals and provides necessities to those in refugee camps. You can just make a donation, but Syria needs long-term commitment. Get involved in one of their regular Big Aid Drops by hosting a collection point in your area, or organising a collection in your workplace to take to one of the collection points.

If you’re an Arabic speaker and have practical skills, consider joining one of the aid convoys organised by One Nation UK. They deliver aid, medical supplies and ambulances to Syria on a regular basis.

For another view of the revolution in Homs, watch this Panorama documentary ‘Homs, Journey into Hell’.