In the besieged rebel enclave in northern-Homs, known as the "Rastan" pocket, a library has been opened by activists for the cultural development of the region.
In the besieged area of northern Homs, known as the “Rastan” pocket, locals are creating initiatives to rehabilitate the region’s infrastructure and public services to improve the lives of local residents.
Homs, in north-western Syria, is the third largest city in the country and one of the most important economic cities, containing the country’s largest oil refineries.
As one of the first cities to experience widespread protests against the government of Bashar al-Assad, and as part of the wider Arab Uprisings that affected many countries in the MENA region, Homs was consequently a symbolic city of the revolution and subsequent war.
In May 2011, the Syrian Army (SAA) launched a violent crackdown against the protests that had persisted over the previous month. Reports of live fire from the SAA against unarmed protesters became widespread, leading many of the demonstrators to take up arms. Although at first this was done in self-defence, the demonstrators later used the weapons to attack the SAA and form some of Syria’s first rebel brigades. They would later come under the moniker the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as rebel factions and SAA defections grew in number.
By May 2012, the FSA, along with the al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, controlled up to 20% of Homs, including the Old City and significant territory in the northern countryside. The SAA responded by placing the all rebel held enclaves under a two year long siege.
The siege mostly came to a conclusion in May 2014 when an evacuation agreement for all areas except al-Waer in the west of the city handed control back to the SAA. Remaining rebel factions in al-Waer were eventually evacuated between March and May 2017.
However, the northern Homs countryside, comprising primarily of Rastan and Talbiseh, has remained under siege by the SAA. The region is subject to the de-escalation agreement that was arranged by Iran, Russia and Turkey during talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, in May 2017.
For the roughly 180,000 people living in the besieged enclave, public services and economic opportunities have been dwindling as a result of a lack of trade across the SAA-controlled borders. Volunteers in the enclave have responded by setting up workshops to help young people find employment, as well as provide educational facilities which were otherwise mostly non-existent.
A new library has opened in the enclave, called the Martyr Ahmed Khalaf library. It is dedicated to a local who died in the war. The main objective for opening the library is to spread cultural awareness, as well as to help expand and compliment existing educational facilities in the enclave.
The books in the library were rescued from the Old Cultural Council in Homs City by young people. “The library was opened with the cooperation of the local civilian council,” said one of the librarians. “It will serve as an incubator for civil society and be a gathering place for lovers of reading.”
For locals, the opening of the library reaffirms their survival in the enclave, where the economic and social situation have otherwise been bleak.