As Syria’s armed rebellion rages ever so closer to the heart of the capital, some of the worst urban warfare between rebels and regime forces is erupting in sometimes unprecedented ways in previously calm, middle-class Damascus neighborhoods.
Over the past few weeks, families in the urban neighborhood of Barzeh, home to about 30,000 people, have been fleeing such clashes in droves. The exodus leaves many families torn between supporting the rebels at home or fleeing elsewhere for safety.
Some are settling not too far away in downtown Damascus, still in regime hands and considered the final refuge.
Also over the past few weeks, many middle-class families living in relative calm downtown have packed up their belongings and left the country altogether, among them the most resolute, people who swore they would never leave their homes.
In a cruel sort of game of musical chairs, some have rented out their abandoned primary homes to those newly displaced from Barzeh. What they seem to all have in common is limited resources and heavy hearts.
Such is the case of one middle-aged couple, Ghassan and Ghada, who gave false names to protect their son, an activist. They hail from Barzeh, located just inside the city limits, before sprawl turns into suburbs.
They recently rented someone’s abandoned home, “complete with linens and silverware,” a relieved Ghada said, explaining that they have not been able to return home to Barzeh to fetch any of their belongings.
As for so many Damascenes, the past few weeks have been especially difficult for Ghada’s entire family, who felt forced to uproot, and do not know what might become of their home.
“My Son Doesn’t Talk To Me Anymore”
When the fighting in Barzeh first started in early March, the couple sat side by side in the neon-lit lobby of a hotel in downtown Damascus, and chain-smoked. Each had the dazed look, all too familiar these days, found on the faces of so many displaced people in Damascus.
In between puffs, they would stare into space, perhaps trying to ascertain what had just happened.
“Last night we jumped in our car and drove off like crazy people, and we had nothing but the clothes on our backs,” said Ghada, lighting another cigarette.
That was when they became part of the 2 million Syrians made homeless by the uprising-turned-civil war, which marked its second anniversary in March.
In Damascus today, it is not unusual to meet people who have been displaced four or five different times in as many months from embattled areas on the city outskirts.
“Which is the reason I want to rent a place here in the city center,” said Ghassan. “If I opt for a cheaper place a bit farther out, I know that soon clashes will break out and we’ll have to move once again.”
It was difficult enough for Ghassan and his wife to persuade their adult children to leave the only home they had known, so the thought of having to do it again is unbearable.
“My son has been so upset he doesn’t talk to me anymore,” said Ghassan, adding that the son, who is 20, had been actively helping the rebels with logistics.
“My wife and I both root for the rebels, but we’re so relieved we’re not in Barzeh, because we had no control over our son at home. He’d leave the house and return late at night despite gunfire clashes and snipers. There was no talking him down,” Ghassan said.
Now, when Ghassan’s son threatens to return home to Barzeh, Ghassan knows that the new government checkpoints that now surround the neighborhood as part of a strangulation strategy will not let the young man pass. Government forces usually surround a rebel stronghold area to prevent food, water, fuel and weapons from entering.
The Square of Security
In many ways, Damascus has never felt so small.
While in better days hundreds of thousands of commuters used to come in and out of the city with great ease, many Damascenes like Ghassan now feel cordoned off inside what is commonly called the Square of Security.
It comprises about a dozen or so residential urban neighborhoods, and includes major government landmarks like the Parliament, various ministries, intelligence branches and embassies. It is here also that the presidential palace is located, as well as the president’s private residence, where Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad may be hiding out.
You can walk from one edge of the square to the other in less than two hours. The Square of Security is the ultimate prize for the rebels.
The ongoing warfare in Barzeh, a part of town that until two months ago was easily accessible on foot and by car, has now decreased the size of the Square of Security. Some Damascenes now sarcastically call it the Triangle of Security, lampooning its fast-shrinking area.
But for Ghassan and his wife, the Square-turned-Triangle may be the final stop.
“Let’s face it,” Ghassan said, waxing pessimistic. “We worked very very hard to save up enough money to buy our home in Barzeh. But I think now our home will be destroyed, because rebels have set up an operation right in front of it.”
He draws on numerous examples from the outskirts of Damascus, where entire suburbs have turned into ghost towns. Bombing from air force planes on areas with a known presence of rebels, whom the government considers terrorists, has left homes and infrastructure completely obliterated. Some activists estimate that more than 2 million apartment buildings have been destroyed throughout Syria since the conflict began.
The ongoing government bombardment of Barzeh is no different. These videos, uploaded on Thursday by anti-government activists, show the latest shelling this week, with the resulting fire and destruction to homes and schools.
Asked if they would rather flee abroad like so many of their compatriots, just in case the armed rebellion followed them downtown, Ghassan and Ghada said they would, if only they could persuade their children of the idea.
“I wish my kids were 10 years younger or 10 older,” said Ghassan’s wife. “The younger ones, you just pack up and bring with you no questions asked. Older ones worry about their own safety. But at this age? All they want to do is be part of the rebellion.”