Civilians who have recently been evacuated from the besieged Old City of Homs in Syria have been cheered by news that, while their 18-month ordeal was going on under the eyes of the world, their comrades in the Wiltshire market town of Marlborough had at last succeeded in their campaign to get planning approval for a new Tesco on the outskirts of town.
‘Your fight is our fight and we rejoice with you,’ said Abu Lutfi, 74, chair of the Homs-Marlborough Twinning Committee, one of about 300 elderly men and women on stretchers or crutches, exhausted mothers and children who left Homs under a temporary truce last week and have now been given water by the Arab Red Crescent Society.
Tension had also been running high in Marlborough, where local people had long complained that their human rights were being denied in a High Street with only a Waitrose and two independent butchers. An alternative application by Sainsbury’s nearly derailed the whole process before a packed council meeting at Devizes last week finally gave Tesco the green light to build a superstore on the Salisbury Road Business Park.
‘It is a victory for the people,’ said supermarket campaign leader Lydia Carroll to jubilant locals, many of whom had travelled by coach and car to the planning hearing, despite bad weather and treacherous roads. ‘Tesco was always our preferred choice. Now, as we salute our comrades in Homs, we pray that they will also add a petrol station to compete with the ridiculously expensive one in town.’
Although most political analysts have given considerably more attention to the Syrian Civil War, Lutfi told awaiting journalists that the parallels between the two conflicts are eerie. ‘Many of us have had nothing to eat in the last few weeks but grass and olives – but at least they were free, unlike the rip-off prices in Waitrose,’ he said.
‘And our own sufferings under the repeated air strikes have made us acutely aware of the problems of the low- to middle-income bracket in affluent English country towns like Marlborough. Syrian people know all too well how difficult it can be to feed a growing family without access to an adequate choice of nutritious pre-packaged meals. Or transport. Or limbs. I will prostrate myself to God in thanks for what Wiltshire County Council has done, as soon as I can raise the strength to lift my arms again.’