The writing is on the walls of Homs, telling the story of the siege of this central Syrian city once dubbed the “capital of the revolution” against President Bashar al-Assad.
In the devastated formerly rebel-held Old City, graffiti scrawled by rebels adorns gutted storefronts and walls riddled with bullets.
For two years, Assad’s forces bombarded insurgents holed up inside the city before the siege was finally lifted at the beginning of May.
The last rebel holdouts left the area under an evacuation deal that handed the Old City back to the government, granting it a symbolic victory.
In the early days of protests that became an uprising, the revolutionary spirit dominated, with demonstrators chanting anti-regime slogans before Assad’s security forces launched a bloody crackdown on dissent.
Now his soldiers stroll indifferently past graffiti such as “Assad traitor”, “Free Homs” and “Long live a free Syria without Assad”.
Old inscriptions honouring “eternal leader” Hafez al- Assad, the late president and Bashar’s father, overlap with “Down with the Assad regime” or “God damn your soul, Assad” a favoured insult of regime critics.
More than two years of bombardment and fighting resulted in at least 2,200 people killed in the city’s Hamidiyeh, Jib al-Jandali, Bab Dreib, Bustan al-Diwan, Al-Safsafa and other districts.
“Freedom is won with the blood of martyrs,” reads one slogan.
In a shelter where both anti-regime fighters and residents had sought refuge, beside a pile of mattresses, on a wall is written “Martyrdom or victory”.
What is written reflects different beliefs and allegiances among the various rebel groups, labelled by the regime as “terrorists” financed mainly by Gulf states.
Revolutionary slogans are painted alongside those put up by Islamist movements at the heart of the insurrection.
– ‘Advent of the Caliphate’ –
“Welcome to the people of jihad” proclaims one, while others plainly state the aims of those who wrote them: “The advent of the Caliphate is at hand” and “We demand an Islamic state”.
“The Islamic state will stand against all” refers to the most radical jihadist group fighting in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Dreaded shabiha regime militiamen, accused of abuses against civilians and ransacking areas retaken by the army, come in for particular mention: “Shabiha — we’ll meet you where you live.”
Treachery is not forgotten: “Free us from collaborators” reads one plea about rebels suspected of being in the pay of the regime.
The human misery of an extended siege results in the plaintive “The people are hungry”.
Other slogans take the leaders of rebel groups to task, accusing them of preventing civilians from getting out of the areas under siege, or even of hoarding whatever rations there were for themselves.
“Abu Rateb, Abu Azzam — let the families go” and “We want to eat, you thieves”.
In the final days of the siege, some sought to justify the fact that they had finally accepted to pull out of their strongholds.
“We signed the deal so we could eat,” someone wrote.
But it is not just words left behind in the rubble: makeshift graves can be seen in gardens and around mosques.
In the courtyard of the ravaged Al-Kamel mosque in Bustan al-Diwan, a fly-covered hand pokes out of a pit amid a nauseating stench.
An improvised inscription gives the name of a deserter killed on April 29, in the very last days of the siege. Close by, another sign reads “Cemetery of the hero martyrs”.
Despite the success of the regime’s military’s siege tactics, some slogan writers express their determination to return.
“For two years we didn’t leave Homs. We’ll be back.”