Sammy Ketz, AFP
Last updated: 8 November, 2012

Damascenes braced for long war

Woken up by artillery pounding the outskirts of Damascus, three-year-old Ammar runs crying to his mother who reassures him it was only a ball that hit a wall of their home.

Long spared the violence that has engulfed the rest of the country, the Syrian capital is now submerged in the war between government forces and rebels out to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“He falls back asleep, but it’s me who spends the night in fear that a shell will fall on our heads,” Umm Ammar, 34, tells her friend, neighbour and fellow mother Umm Alma, 31.

“Death can come at any moment and the children are afraid of everything,” says the young mother, wearing a black coat and matching scarf.

The two friends, originally from Qudsaya to the north of Damascus, fled when their city became a battlefield.

In Damascus, they live in different neighbourhoods but they were reunited for the first time in the central Arnus Square.

“Alma has got used to the war, and anyway I can’t stay cloistered in the house. Life must go on,” says Umm Alma, wearing a pink scarf.

The army, especially the Fourth Armoured Division, an elite unit headed by the president’s brother Maher, is tasked with preventing rebels from entering the city and trying to evict them from strongholds in southern and eastern suburbs.

To prevent infiltrations, the capital, where the rumble of artillery and roar of fighter jets constantly reverberate, has isolated itself with multiple checkpoints at every entrance to the city.

The capital has been split up into eight sectors. In case of attack, each would be isolated to launch efforts to retake it from rebels, a security source explained.

A senior manager at a government ministry, Amira arrived late and exhausted for work, saying the crackle of automatic weapons kept her up all night and that the 20-kilometre (12-mile) commute to work took two hours.

“I can’t do this anymore. The drive has become an ordeal because there are seven checkpoints on the way and I could be killed or abducted for ransom or because of my religion,” says the woman, 30, grabbing a coffee and cigarette.

She knows there will be no quick negotiated solution.

“The government won’t be negotiating with terrorists any time soon,” she says, using the official terminology for rebels in an almost 20-month uprising against the regime that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

Plagued by attacks, especially car bombs, the capital has been disfigured by concrete walls, sandbags and streets blocked off by multiple checkpoints, resembling Baghdad during the bloodiest years of sectarian unrest in Iraq.

In the evening people do not venture out of their neighbourhoods.

“Checkpoints in the streets are infuriating but I would rather be inconvenienced than have innocent people die in explosions,” says Yazan, 24, a government clerk.

While Damascus has not suffered the street fighting of the cities of Aleppo or Homs, the country’s flailing economy and skyrocketing inflation make their mark on everyday life.

In Salhiyeh, in the centre, the owner of a jeans store complains that his profits have slumped 30 percent.

“People are saving and keeping their money for food, school supplies, electricity and water,” laments Tawfik, 64. “In the 80s (under a state-planned economy), we had customers but no merchandise, now it’s the opposite.”

In the jewellery shop next door, Fateh, is less down. “We no longer sell bracelets and trinkets. Now people buy gold, coins or necklaces, to preserve their savings.”

Faruq Shaman Hassiyan, 36, has more immediate concerns.

He fled the central town of Rastan eight months ago with his wife and seven daughters when, according to him, his neighbours stole their car, his livestock and house.

He has since put the whole family to work begging on the Damascus streets.