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Ten days in Damascus

The Damascus-Beirut route leading out of Syria, just before the Lebanese border Heba Aly/IRIN

I am told the road from Damascus International Airport is not very safe (in the days after my arrival, rebels would attack the airport several times).

Instead, I enter Syria via Lebanon, zigzagging through fog-covered mountains, as I, a colleague, and a driver make our way past small towns and agricultural terraces to the border. At the customs gate, a long line of cars queue for entry into Lebanon, squeezed full of whatever small baggage families have managed to take with them. Our side of the road is much quieter.

Exit stamps in hand, we enter some 5km of rocky, red-earthed no-man’s land between the Lebanese and Syrian borders, lined with shrubby mountains and a billboard of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reading: “I believe in Syria!”

Our last stop before entering Syria is the Duty Free shop, offering everything from Swiss chocolates to stuffed animals and flat screen TVs. The adjoining Dunkin Donuts does not sell any doughnuts.

Once across the border, we travel another 45 minutes on the Beirut-Damascus route to get to town. It is relatively safe, geographically stunning, and just before Friday prayers, mostly deserted. We pass a shepherd and his large flock and several sleepy checkpoints where soldiers wearing jackets to keep out the light rain wave us by without much hassle.

As we drive past the Mezze neighbourhood of Damascus, which, months ago, was home to the first demonstrations in the city, we hear the sound of shelling in the distance.

“We have learned to make out these sounds,” the driver says. “We know now if it is a mortar, artillery or tank.”

We pull into the central Umayyad roundabout, where a withered Ministry of Defence building stands blocked off by barriers, sheets draped over its front exterior to cover the damage it suffered in October when rebels detonated two improvised explosive devices first outside, then inside the building, before occupying it, engaging in a five-hour fire-fight with government security forces and eventually being driven out.

"Sometimes I wish I hadn't married. If I was single, I could help the others. But now, I can't even help myself and my kids." 

My hotel on the opposite side of the roundabout offers rooms at an unbeatable rate: US $1,100 for one month, including breakfast and internet. I unpack in my cold room and check my email:

“Asma Basher, first lady of Syria” is offering me a proposal and asking me to contact her on her personal email address for more details. Even in war, there is spam.

It is Friday night. The streets are quiet - ever quieter since rebels tried to take the capital in July. Some restaurants and shisha cafes still have clientele, but many shops are closed and impromptu checkpoints appear on previously unguarded corners.

They are manned by armed men in jeans and camouflage jackets. In one case, the man at the intersection wears a suit and tie, a Kalashnikov casually slung across his shoulder. I walk past a park in the up-scale Abu Rumanah neighbourhood, where a mortar fell earlier in the week, shattering the windows of two parked cars and spraying an adjacent van with shrapnel - the devastation left on display like a souvenir.

Inside the city’s fancy restaurants, the war seems far away, but there are small reminders: hand-written stickers adjust the prices on the menu - everything is more expensive now, especially food.

The exception is the Western-style shops and malls, where most store-fronts flash 70 percent off signs – there are few customers for jewelry and fancy shoes these days.

In the historic Old Town, tourist sites are closed, and sandbag-protected checkpoints are going up. Amid the cobbled streets of the souq, an old man sits on a stool outside the sheesha shop his grandfather opened decades ago. His is the only shop open in this part of the market. Most businesses close on Friday - especially in light of the increased insecurity on the most popular day of protest. But he is desperate for a customer. His shop used to bring in 100,000 Syrian pounds a day; now he’s lucky if he makes 6,000.

Unemployment has skyrocketed as factories shut down and businesses struggle to stay afloat, due to conflict, an exodus of tourists, and international sanctions. Medicines are lacking in the pharmacies and food prices have doubled and tripled in some cases. One grocery run can now cost a civil servant her month’s salary. Some items, even flour, can be hard to find in the supermarket at times. And as the cold sets in, oil used for heating, known locally as mazout, has been unavailable on the market for more than a week. Many gas stations have long queues.

Aid agencies and local charities have struggled to keep up with the quickly increasing needs, and some people are inevitably left behind. At the offices of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s Damascus branch, now focused on helping people displaced by the violence, two older women beg for assistance for their families. They have not been directly affected by the conflict, but their sons have been out of work for eight months. Their families, they say, have eaten nothing but bulgur (cracked wheat) cereals for days.

“Charities use to help the poor,” said one Damascene. “But now everyone is poor.”

Damascus is increasingly full of Syrians who have fled violence in other parts of the country. At the offices of a small aid agency, formerly middle class people wait patiently for plastic bags of food. When the weather was warmer, some displaced people slept in public parks in the city. Now they are forced to find shelter in schools and public buildings that are quickly filling up.

Still, their conditions are far better than those living in areas directly affected by fighting, where according to one UN official who visited rebel-controlled areas recently, “you have no basic services, no fuel, no electricity, no water, absolutely nothing.”

A military helicopter whizzes overhead as I have lunch in the office garden. An imam’s voice echoes from a nearby loudspeaker, interrupted by intermittent shelling. The sound of shelling has become a normal part of daily life, but sometimes it sounds as though it is being launched from your balcony. When it is unusually loud or close, people look to each other and shudder. At an outdoor cafe, the waitress makes the sign of a cross on her chest, as customers wonder whether they should move inside.

“Every time I hear that, I wonder how many children died this time?” one aid worker says.

“Asma Basher, first lady of Syria” is offering me a proposal and asking me to contact her on her personal email address for more details. Even in war, there is spam.

The news this evening reports heavy fighting in and around the capital, with 21 dead. You would not necessarily know it unless you watched TV. Even when the fighting is so near, Damascus can feel like a bubble.

Syrian TV replays daily a patriotic military video that shows soldiers training, military helicopters taking off and ships firing rockets. When it ends, the next segment is a cultural history of the Old City.

People still take their children to the park in an attempt to maintain some normality in their lives. But the unease is palpable.

Important government installations are blocked off by cement barriers or steel rods joined in a star-like shape. While movement around Damascus is still fairly easy, there are an increasing number of checkpoints that can seriously slow down traffic, especially in the evening.

In this atmosphere, one peaceful activist opposed to the government has prepared his children to be orphans - putting money aside, uploading all his important documents online, preparing visas for his family, and giving his wife instructions on what to do if he is arrested or killed.

But in the midst of it all, Syrians remain a strong and welcoming people. At an empty restaurant in the Old City, a smartly dressed waiter insists a foreign visitor’s drink is on the house, despite the hardest economic times suffered in the country in decades.

When the customer protests, he reminds her of an Arab saying: “A small home can hold 1,000 friends.”

Still, many see the future as bleak, putting faith in God that the situation will improve. Ultimately though, they are forlorn.

“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t married,” says one man displaced from his home in a strategic area of a Damascus suburb when the army took it over. “If I was single, I could help the others. But now, I can’t even help myself and my kids.”

As my time in Syria draws to a close, I wonder whether I will find my Syrian colleagues safe, if and when I return. On the way out, the Lebanese border crossing is chaotic. Babies are screaming as their mothers compete for a turn at the counter and for a better life abroad. We squeeze past taxis and private cars with suitcases on the roofs, and like the refugees, leave behind a country with an unpredictable future and a people with mounting needs.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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