Rifa was growing frantic. Her husband had called to say that he and her brother were stuck on their way home from work outside the Syrian capital, normally a 25-minute drive.
There was fighting in a northern suburb, he said, and traffic was frozen. Tensions rose as the hours passed. It is never good to be out after dark in Damascus now, especially trapped in a traffic jam, unable to flee. Finally, Rifa’s husband called again. They had escaped and returned to their workplace to pass the night, another concession to their changing world.
War has come to Damascus. Not on the scale of Aleppo or Homs, at least not yet. But the difference from just a few months ago is unmistakable. With sandbagged checkpoints every half-mile and soldiers methodically searching vehicles for weapons, simple movement is becoming impossible. “Where is Damascus headed? Are we the next Aleppo?” Rifa asked a few days later. “How soon before our city, our markets, are destroyed?”
This is the centre of Bashar Assad’s power, the stronghold he tried for months to shield from a popular uprising that has inexorably been transformed into a bloody civil war. As his troops battled insurgents all around the country, Assad was determined that here, at least, he would preserve an air of normalcy, of routine, of certainty that life would go on, as it had before.
Such illusions are no longer possible. The reality of war has crept into daily life, and there is a sense of inevitability. Even supporters of the government talk about what comes next, and rebels speak of tightening the noose around this city, their ultimate goal.
Damascus was once known for its all-night party scene. Now, few people venture out after dark, and kidnappings are rampant. Gasoline is increasingly scarce, and as winter approaches people are worried about shortages of food and heating oil. Streets are closed at a moment’s notice, traffic diverted, bridges shut down. Even longtime residents and taxi drivers get lost and have to weave in and out of parking lots to avoid barriers and dead-end streets. Shelling and machine-gun fire are so commonplace, children no longer react.
As recently as summer, while war raged in various neighbourhoods surrounding the city, Damascus existed in a bubble of denial. War, people seemed to feel, was happening elsewhere – and the residents of Assad’s stronghold were determined to live their lives as if nothing had changed. There were garden parties and fashion shoots, and the Opera House hosted Italian tenors. There were elegant dinners at embassies – before the ambassadors fled, that is.
But as summer faded, the strangulation of Damascus began. More checkpoints appeared.
The shabiha – Arabic for ghosts – progovernment paramilitary forces who are often held responsible for the most violent crimes, were defiantly visible in foreign hotels. Now, suicide bombings are more frequent, and the rebels of the Free Syrian Army say they are slowly establishing control of the suburbs that ring the city, with the aim of slowly strangling the government. Some families say they are taking their children out of school and teaching them at home, because the drive to school is too dangerous.
Discussions among friends are no longer “of the real world,” as one writer put it. Talk turns more naturally to the fate of the homeless in the city’s parks, or the traumatisation of the children. “People,” one woman said, “talk of death.”
City under siege
To a reporter based in Paris who has been granted three visas in recent months to report freely in the country, Damascus seems now like a city under siege, where for most people danger is a wearying companion – so much so that the last names of those interviewed for this article are being withheld for their protection.
Kidnapping of wealthy Syrians is on the rise, sowing fear in the city’s finest precincts. In Mezze, a politically and ethnically mixed neighborhood once known as the Beverly Hills of Damascus, people talk of the daughter of a local businessman who was kidnapped three weeks ago and ransomed for about $395,000. She was returned to her family, according to local residents, sexually abused, tortured and traumatized.
Residents say the kidnappers are from either the Free Syrian Army or renegade offshoots of radical groups or are, in the government’s catchall phrase, “foreign terrorists.” One man, an Armenian Christian – “a minority within a minority,” he joked – said he was wary of laying blame on any one group. “I am not aware of a unified opposition,” he said. “People call themselves groups – FSA, Salafists.”
While people will openly complain of government corruption – even in Alawite pro-Assad regions like Latakia – they also fear what will come if and when Assad falls. Many are painfully aware that the breakdown of society into sectarian groups has echoes of earlier tragedies, in Bosnia and neighbouring Iraq. As Samir, a resident of a Christian neighborhood, Baba Touma, said, “No one knows who is who anymore – what side they are on.”
Rifa supports the government, and is the only one in her family who is pro-Assad. In her affluent Sunni clan, the political persuasions run from a brother who supports the opposition to a sister who simply wants to keep her 10-year-old son in school and run her business. A third sister said she was slowly “waking up to the reality of what is happening here – though I tried to deny it.”
In addition to growing shortages, cash flow is a problem. The sanctions have made it impossible to wire money into the country, and the price of food has risen drastically. “A kilo of tomatoes has doubled in price in six months,” one of Rifa’s sisters said.
It is common to go to at least four gas stations before finding one that is open; at night, groups of men come selling “bootleg” gasoline in tin canisters. Abu Khalil, a Free Syrian Army commander in Douma, a suburb south of Damascus that saw heavy fighting and is now controlled by the rebels, said the “dream plan” was to eventually encircle Damascus, throttling commerce and disrupting utilities. His “office” was littered with shards of broken glass, weapons, mattresses on the floor and a group of “shabab” – young fighters – loitering around, smoking.
For many Damascenes, what is most difficult is coming to terms with the harsh reality of a civil war, of Syrians against Syrians. Under the law, Syrians are required to donate blood when they graduate from high school or college, or receive a driver’s license.
“It means we all shared the same blood in some ways,” Roni said. “Now when these guys kill each other, they might be killing someone whose very blood is in their veins. It’s crazy.” But perhaps the thing that everyone fears most is expressed in graffiti in the Old City rebel stronghold of Zabadani: “We Don’t Like You,” it reads. “Soon We Will Be In The Middle Of Damascus.”