Dam­as­cus: The chang­ing face of Syria’s cap­i­tal

Seven mil­lion Syr­i­ans now need human­i­tar­ian assis­tance, accord­ing to an esti­mate from the United Nations. The Assad régime is being blamed by the UN for hin­der­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of aid. In the cap­i­tal, Dam­as­cus, peo­ple strug­gle to get on with their lives in the midst of a civil war.


By Jeremy Bowen

A doc­tor in one of the mil­i­tary hos­pi­tals in Dam­as­cus strug­gled to find the right words. Every­one does.

In the end he just said: “I do not recog­nise this place anymore.”

“This is not our life,” he said. “This is not our country.”

He talked as if he had blun­dered into some­one else’s night­mare. I used to tell my friends in Britain, he said, to come to Syria, because it was safe, and wonderful.

He was right. Three years ago I brought my mother and my daugh­ter, then nine years old, to Syria for a holiday.

We walked through the Old City of Dam­as­cus, and drove up the high­way to Aleppo, past Homs, and Hama, and stopped off near Idlib at the deserted towns known as the Dead Cities.

They are hun­dreds of set­tle­ments that sprawl across a high moor­land that were aban­doned more than a thou­sand years ago.

Syria was, as the doc­tor said, a friendly and safe place to visit.

It is not any more.

This week, the head of the UN World Food Pro­gramme in Syria, which feeds 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple every month, told me about a trip he has just done from Dam­as­cus to Aleppo.

He said they went through 50 check­points on the road between Syria’s two biggest cities. Just over half were gov­ern­ment troops. Armed rebels manned the rest.

Pres­i­dent Assad was on TV this week. He denied there was any such thing as a lib­er­ated area con­trolled by the rebels in Syria, but the fact is that the only con­tact the President’s men have with large parts of the coun­try is through the sights of a weapons system.

That even applies to dis­tricts of Dam­as­cus. The régime con­trols the core of the city.

But much of the sprawl­ing, impov­er­ished ring of sub­urbs around it is in the hands of the rebels.

That is why all day, and some­times all night, there is the crump of artillery fire from the Syr­ian army’s posi­tions directed into the con­crete jun­gles on the edge of town.

The bangs are not con­stant. But they are reg­u­lar and steady and some­times intense.

Ear­lier this week I could see a tall black col­umn of smoke com­ing from a fire that the attacks have started in one of the rebel-​held suburbs.

I went down to the east­ern end of gov­ern­ment con­trolled Dam­as­cus, just beyond Abiseen Square, which used to be one of its posher neighbourhoods.

Sand­bagged mil­i­tary posi­tions start in one of the roads off the square, which leads to a sub­urb called Jobar.

Every so often an armoured per­son­nel car­rier or a tank screeches around the Abiseen Square roundabout.

In the streets that lead into the square, life goes on. Shops are open, though the prices of basics, like toma­toes, have doubled.

I spoke to a woman who lives in direct line of sight of the rebels in Jobar. She was stand­ing out­side her local shop­ping mall and restau­rant, which was bat­tered and shut­tered and barely functioning.

It had a newly built blast wall where plate glass used to be. They have given up replac­ing the windows.

But human beings are resilient.

The woman — she did not want me to use her name — said that she was a plan­ning a bar­beque at the local café with her neighbours.

But she was scared she would be caught in the open by a stray bul­let or one of the mor­tars that the now much more heav­ily armed rebels can lob out of their territory.

I have no idea what is in the mind of Pres­i­dent Assad. But I get the impres­sion from peo­ple close to the régime that, despite every­thing, they believe they are win­ning not just the war but the argument.

That is because their Russ­ian and Iran­ian allies are hold­ing firm, and because after two years the Assads are still here.

The for­mer lead­ers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya lasted, respec­tively, days, weeks and months after insur­rec­tions began.

The Assads seem sat­is­fied that their claim that they are fac­ing jihadist fight­ers has, finally, come true.

Sec­u­lar Syr­i­ans and oth­ers say the régime’s own vio­lence has cre­ated the con­di­tions for jihadists to flourish.

Mark Twain wrote that in Dam­as­cus years were only moments.

Time, he said, was mea­sured by the empires the city has seen rise and fall.

But peo­ple count their lives in months and years, fam­i­lies, friends and jobs. Dam­as­cus, and Syria, will get through this.

It is tragic that so many of its peo­ple will not. In the news busi­ness, the word tragic can be overused.

That does not apply in Syria. In this place it feels more like an understatement.

Source: BBC

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