BEIRUT — Cut off by a relentless barrage of government shelling, activists in the besieged Syrian city of Homs have reverted to the age-old practice of using carrier pigeons to communicate with each other.
“From the activists in Old Homs (district) to those in Baba Amr, please tell us what you need in terms of supplies, medicine and food,” reads one message attached to a pigeon’s leg.
“God willing, we will deliver them to you,” says the message, as seen in a video the opposition activists recently uploaded to YouTube.
The central city has been under a relentless barrage of heavy machinegun fire, tank shells, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades since February 4.
The onslaught has cost the lives of at least 300 people, according to the United Nations, and has left the city isolated from the outside world, with telecommunications and electricity severed.
Activists say that given the heavy shelling and restricted movements, they have turned to carrier pigeons to get messages through enemy lines.
“We thank Bashar for taking us back to the Middle Ages,” says Omar, an activist in the Bab Sbaa neighbourhood of the city, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Omar is seen standing among pigeons on the rooftop of a building in Bab Sbaa in one of the YouTube videos uploaded to the Internet via a satellite feed.
He carefully scrawls a message on a small piece of paper to his counterparts who are little more than two kilometres (1.2 miles) away in Baba Amr, which has suffered some of the heaviest shelling.
Despite only being a short distance apart, the activists say they are unable to venture very far because of checkpoints between them manned by security forces and the Shabiha, or pro-government thugs.
The activists launched their uprising last March using social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter to rally support.
They say they are now forced to use pigeons to communicate with each other in certain neighbourhoods of Homs out of the reach of their walkie-talkies.
“They have transformed Homs into a big prison. People don’t dare venture outside and they can’t do anything. The Shabiha are everywhere,” says Omar.
He says there were reports out of Baba Amr of parents being forced to feed their children a diet of stale bread and water.
Apart from enquiring about what supplies are needed, Omar also jots down the names of people from the city killed in the latest fighting of the 11-month uprising.
He then rolls up the message and attaches it with a string to the leg of a pigeon before releasing the bird.
“May God be with you,” he shouts as the pigeon flies off amid the sound of heavy gunfire and shelling. “May God guide you to Baba Amr.”
The answer comes back the same day, bearing an appeal for aid but also a defiant message.
“We need medical assistance and food,” the message reads, according to a separate video posted on YouTube. “The news you sent has reached us.
“Long live Syria. Down with Bashar al-Assad.”
Syrians were among the first people to use pigeons as messengers and this was often the sole source of communication in the region.