Sammy Ketz, AFP
Last updated: 30 August, 2012

Damascenes forced to live with war

Three shopkeepers seated in front of their shops in the centre of the Syrian capital remain engrossed in their conversation, oblivious to three strong explosions nearby.

Thousands of motorists speed away towards the south of the city, passing three army tanks whose barrels point at Nahr Aisha district which bears the scars of a fierce battle.

And in Jaramana, a mainly Christian- and Druze-inhabited suburb, youngsters armed with Kalashnikovs and belonging to “popular committees” have set up roadblocks.

They check identity cards and search cars, although their vigilance did not prevent a deadly car bombing in the suburb on Tuesday.

Long isolated from the bloodshed that has torn Syria, Damascus has been engulfed in the war since mid-July when rebels tried to capture it before regime troops repelled them.

But the troops have failed to wipe out the rebels despite their far superior firepower, mainly because of the porous borders between Damascus and its suburbs, which have turned into insurgent strongholds.

In the northeastern neighbourhood of Barzeh, Ahmad phones his wife every night to know different routes to avoid being caught at checkpoints. But often he is stopped by men in uniform whom he is unable to identify as regime or rebels.

“They are very rude and can kill me for giving a wrong answer or if I don’t turn my head at them. It happened to a 24-year-old who was shot without knowing by who or why,” says the printer.

“You have to be polite and look at them when they return your papers with the inevitable encouragement “May God give you strength,” even though that is the last thing I want, for if they have strength they will use it on the battlefield, near my home, and I won’t sleep at night,” added the father of two.

In a country where security has become the watchword, clashes, displacement of people, destruction, unemployment and inflation have depressed much of the five million people of the metropolis.

“Every morning as I leave my wife for work, I tell myself that if I come back in the evening it is victory over death because now our lives are worth 30 pounds (50 cents), the price of a Kalashnikov bullet,” says restaurant worker Michel.

For this Christian employee, who had expected President Bashar al-Assad to quickly crush the rebellion, the important thing now is to find a negotiated solution.

“When I tell the pro- and anti- regime (people) that I am not with any of them, they listen to only the first part of my sentence and immediately consider me an enemy,” he says.

“We need all the players to sit at a table and talk without conditions, otherwise the bloodshed will continue,” says the father of a one-year-old boy who has decided to emigrate if there is no solution by autumn.

Mohammad, a 52-year-old Sunni, has a similar view.

Director of a factory in a southern suburb of Damascus, Mohammad was an enthusiastic supporter of the uprising but the ubiquitous roadblocks and 17 months of conflict have ruined his business.

“I’m still against the regime, but this drawn-out war is suicide,” he says.

In Sahnaya district of Old Damascus, even tombstones are not easily available for a conflict which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says has killed more than 25,000 people over the past 17 months.

“People are just looking for a hole in a cemetery,” says Tareq Samini, 45, carving with his chisel the name of a “shaheed” (martyr), a young soldier killed in the central city of Homs.

“A tombstone is a luxury that we offer in peacetime, not wartime,” says colleague Jihad Jano.

At his home in the residential neighbourhood of Abu Remmane, a former Syrian diplomat thinks there will be many more dead before the two sides give up fighting.

He cites a few lines from famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s “State of Siege” – “Me or him. That’s how war begins. But it ends in an awkward meeting between me and him.”