Exclusive video shows gun battle between Syrian rebels and regime forces in Homs
Clashes between the two sides have destroyed Homs' once-bustling Cairo Street
Rebels on Cairo Street say they'll carry on fighting until 'the bitter end'
Gunfire and explosions echo in the background as the 26 year-old fighter calmly adjusts his weapons.
The sounds of war, once terrifying and alien, are now utterly familiar to the young man who goes by the pseudonym Abu Wasfi.
“I used to demonstrate peacefully,” Abu Wasfi recalls. “I joined the Free Syrian Army after my brother was killed”.
Staring out the window with his weapon ready, he surveys the street below and the war scarred buildings across the road as he continues to tell his brother’s story.
“My brother defected from the Syrian army. He defected because he was told to kill innocent civilians and given orders to shoot at demonstrators,” says Abu Wasfi.
Abu Wasfi says his brother was killed defending the same neighborhood he is now trying to protect.
“This is his gun, this is my martyr brother’s gun,” Abu Wasfi says, gesturing at his AK-47 assault rifle. “I am following in his footsteps to protect the people.”
Abu Wasfi is part of a rebel fighting force that says it is protecting the neighborhood of Khaldiye in the flashpoint city of Homs. This particular frontline is Cairo Street, which separates the opposition stronghold from al-Bayada, which is held by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces.
Clashes between both sides have rendered the once-bustling middle class shopping street into a combat wasteland. Piles of rubble and burnt out vehicles form makeshift fighting positions. Debris covers the road and sidewalk, buildings are pock-marked with bullet and shrapnel holes, and shredded store awnings flap feebly in the breeze.
Khaldiye seems deserted, but the fighters of the Free Syrian Army here say it’s not just about defending residents who remain – it’s also about defending the property of those who have left.
The rebels claim that Assad loyalists would steal or destroy anything they can get their hands on, accusing them of ransacking and shooting up homes of anyone they suspect of speaking out against the government.
The local rebel commander, who goes by Abu Hadid, crawls through holes fighters smashed between buildings to be able to stealthily move around. Syrian government forces are just across the road. Shouldering a Russian-made Draganov sniper rifle, he greets some of his men in the staircase.
The crude fighting position is inside one of the rooms. A hole in the wall is covered by a slab of metal with a slit that Abu Hadid points his weapon through.
One of his men tells him to look to the left, to the balcony.
“Is it where the red and blue towels are?” Abu Hadid asks – and then, having spotted the target, the 32-year-old fires.
Down the road at another battle position, Abu Al-Baraa has his enemy in sight. He opens fire with his machine gun.
The response from the government forces is immediate and intense.
“Give me the radio, give me the radio,” Abu Al-Baraa calls out as a hail of bullets from government forces drowns out his orders.
Suddenly movement is spotted to the left.
“There is it, there it is!” someone shouts.
An armored police personnel carrier (APC) creeps into the alleyway, unleashing a deafening volley of bullets from its .50-caliber machine gun.
A rebel voice mocks the notion of a ceasefire: “Look Kofi Annan, this is Khaldiya, Homs,” he says as the APC moves back and fires directly at the rebel fighting position.
Hazem, another machine gunner, says indignantly: “We can’t just have a one-sided ceasefire – they can’t expect us to come under fire and not respond.”
So far any attempts at diplomacy and dialogue between the Assad government and the opposition have failed. A growing number of civilians are joining the armed struggle, believing it is their only chance after having paid a bitter price these last 15 months for daring to defy the regime.
The men fighting on Cairo Street – and many others fighting across the country – say they will carry on until the bitter end, even if it means the uprising becomes a civil war.