Fatigued. Pale-faced. On edge.
This is how I describe people in Damascus lately, especially after the past few days of near-continuous assaults on the city.
Some people call it Zero Hour, the final battle for the capital. Rebels had been promising its imminence for some time, and Damascenes had been bracing themselves for what it might entail -- immense fear and chaos, if the last few days are any clue.
And Damascenes feel caught in the crossfire.
Making matters worse, there is an undercurrent of intense psychological warfare keeping everyone on edge.
One rebel brigade issued a statement on Monday to “warn civilians” that a new phase of the fight had begun and that government installations in the capital “will be targeted with rockets and mortar shells.”
These warnings had been circulating for some time. But this warning was particularly chilling, because it preceded a major assault on the city.
The regime, too, has upped the ante in the capital, already a labyrinth of checkpoints and concrete roadblocks, with armed government security men everywhere. While they used to carry only Kalashnikovs, now some guard their turf within the narrow city streets and alleys with rocket-propelled grenade launchers on their shoulders.
Perhaps most disconcerting is the pro-regime graffiti visible throughout the city.
“Assad or we burn the land,” it says, echoing what has become a de facto regime motto.
The Chaos Within
There is an aspect to war that etches itself in one’s psyche, a chaos that seeps into households, disturbing families and changing children.
I got a glimpse of this recently. I happened to be visiting relatives in their home when rebels hit with a rocket the Syrian state television headquarters, located just a three-minute walk away.
We were in mid-conversation when the loud blast shook our building. We quickly moved away from the room with windows into a protected room in the center of the apartment.
In our midst was my hosts’ grandchild, a 5-year-old girl. She seemed to know just what to do, having done it enough times before. She climbed, with no fanfare, onto a sofa in a protected corner and sat there, her legs too short to dangle. She did not cry, and she said nothing. She just watched the adults with great intensity.
“My son. My son. Should I go get him from school?” shrieked the girl’s mother, who was visiting her parents for the day. I shall call her Reem.
“Relax, just calm down. They have a shelter at school,” Reem’s father said, himself suddenly looking pale. He was raising his voice, as if commanding his daughter to calm down.
When Reem was out of earshot, her mother reprimanded the father, telling him he should not have yelled.
“It only gets her more worked up. Just use a soothing voice,” she said. He nodded.
Square Of Security
Reem is among the lucky ones. Unlike 2 million Syrians, she has not had to flee her home.
Almost every household in Damascus today is doubled or tripled up, hosting loved ones displaced from elsewhere.
Many are crammed with family and friends in what has come to be called the Square of Security, an area of about a dozen densely populated urban neighborhoods. This is what Damascus has now been reduced to, after dozens of areas on the outskirts fell into rebel hands.
Clashes ongoing there between rebels and regime forces can be heard all the way from the Square of Security. There's a constant staccato of blasts and booms, mainly shelling from government rocket batteries in the hills that surround Damascus. Bangs and thuds produce a chilling echo, and sometimes the acrid stench of gunpowder is overwhelming.
Over the past several months, a tragic sort of game of musical chairs unfolded. Entire families fled their homes under gunfire. Tired and hungry, with nothing but the clothes on their back, they settled in the next neighborhood over. But the violence soon spread, and those same families had to flee yet again.
In Damascus, it is not unusual to meet people who have been displaced four or five times.
For Reem, her main stress is when her children are out of sight.
Before anyone noticed, she slipped out the door against her father’s advice to fetch her son. This caused a bit of mayhem in the home when the rest of the family realized it. They were so overcome with worry that it was not clear who was saying what, but it sounded something like this:
“Where did she go?” “Why didn’t anyone notice?” “Someone should have gone with her.” “I told you not to raise your voice at her. It only stressed her out more.” “Oh, God! Bring her home safe.”
Outside in the streets, Reem could not have been the only crazed-looking parent.
I had witnessed such a scene before, when my neighborhood was under a mortar attack last month. Against all instinct, and instead of seeking shelter in basements, parents rush out into the open to pick up their children from schools.
I counted more than a dozen of them that day, a mother or father with their small children in tow, pale-faced and still in school uniform. This is what Reem and her son looked like when they finally returned. It was only 15 minutes later, but if felt much longer.
After supper, during a lull in the shelling, the family gathered again. Reem, whose parents had been complaining about her “addiction to news,” got on the Internet and began to read the news out loud.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” she interrupted herself, addressing us. “I read somewhere that if you’re caught in the streets during shelling, you shouldn’t run. Instead, you should get small like a ball, with elbows and knees tight to protect yourself like this.” She curled into a ball to demonstrate.
She was startled by the shelling that began again. As if on cue, her daughter ran into the room and climbed the same sofa. When Reem called for her son, who was sitting in the windowed room watching his favorite cartoon, he replied without moving:
“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m all curled up and protected just fine.”