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Winter is the new crisis facing families returning to conflict-scarred Homs

By Mark Choonoo

Mark Choonoo is a UNICEF Emergency Specialist who was recently working in Homs. He describes the situation there and the impact the ongoing conflict and winter weather is having on children and their families. 

Homs has been home to some of the heaviest fighting in Syria’s 22-month conflict, with hundreds of thousands of residents displaced.

While some parts of the city have been untouched by conflict and seemingly carry on as normal, other areas show the unmistakable signs of intense battles – buildings scarred with bullet holes and shell holes, blown-out windows, rubble. From what I have seen in the suburb of Baba Amr, I would estimate as many as two thirds of the buildings have been damaged - others have collapsed completely.

Yet there are still signs of life in this battered war zone.

Baba Amr is now relatively calm, with some families making their way back, trying to rebuild their lives. But you can still hear explosions and gunfire in the distance and the cold winter weather is adding to the misery.

It’s so bitterly cold, with overnight temperatures dropping to below 0⁰ Celsius. Many children I saw were wearing only light clothes and sandals, or socks, without shoes. All of the children I talked to complained about the cold. Many expressed sadness about friends who had gone away and not returned. But despite it all, they seemed happy to be home.

Many families are living in extremely basic conditions, using plastic sheeting to cover broken windows and doors, sleeping on bare concrete floors or thin mattresses. There is very little heating and a lack of diesel fuel, which is urgently needed. People are trying their best, but just imagine how cold it must be - especially at night.

Other families take refuge in collective shelters, some of which are being supported by local business people.

I visited a local health centre that has been destroyed and is no longer in use. This clinic is just one example of how the destruction of basic community facilities is creating a major gap for families returning, particularly those with chronic illnesses and children who need access to healthcare.

There is also a shortage of medical supplies, and many health professionals have left the area, leaving a vacuum of qualified personnel.

The most urgent needs in Homs is responding to the harsh winter. With four million people across Syria affected by the conflict, close to half of them children, there is a massive need for humanitarian supplies to make sure they are warm and safe. 

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