After the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors left Syria early on Saturday, the countdown for a U.S.-led strike has begun in the minds of many Syrians.
But a few lingering questions remain: When will the warplanes arrive? Or will they strike us only with cruise missiles? Could the strike occur as soon as Saturday night? Or will they wait two weeks because that is how long it will take the U.N. to process its own evidence?
And, as many Damascenes wonder, will the strike only come at night? Or will the planes attack us in broad daylight?
Everyone speculates, but no one claims to know for certain. Regardless, Damascenes continue to prepare for the worst. Most households have already loaded up on provisions, mainly bread, bottled water, batteries and nonperishable foods. Some have figured out routes of escape, in case the strike came on them. Many wonder if any place is safe in the capital, where every block has a government building that can be considered a military target.
Lamia, a 46-year-old mother of four, said residents were getting prepared in her seven-storey building in the middle class neighborhood of Rukn al Din.
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“Our basement is now ready, just in case the strike comes tonight,” she said. Asked why the basement had not been prepared since Syria’s uprising-turned-civil war first began almost two and a half years ago, she said no one had felt the need before now.
In her neighborhood, like in much of Damascus proper, government missile batteries fire from within densely populated areas into the embattled suburbs. The government shelling of Lamia’s neighborhood ends up in the suburb of Jobar in Ghouta, the site of last week’s chemical attack. For months, Lamia and her family have endured the daily, frightening sounds of blasts and booms.
Occasionally, mortar shells would fall on the area of Rukn al Din, or a car bomb would detonate down the street. But until now, residents have not felt the need to prepare for an air raid.
Another Rukn al Din resident wondered how she would get her immobile 90-something-year-old mother down six flights of stairs to the basement, should the need arise. Her options seemed grim.
“The truth is, we won’t be able to,” she said, referring to her own teenage grandchildren. “The truth is, we will all have to go down to the basement without her.”
But not all buildings in Damascus have a basement, which leaves many Damascenes wondering what they should do during an aerial strike.
Remarkably absent are any clear instructions from the Syrian government to civilians.
Only on Saturday has Syrian state-run television finally started talking about the imminent strike altogether, inviting guests onto a talk show to discuss why it is a bad idea, and how innocent the Syrian government is in the face of accusations of a chemical attack.
Prior to Saturday, Syrian TV aired exercise and diet shows every morning, followed by the usual footage of the Syrian Army practicing military maneuvers, a routine aired daily for years.
Nowhere in the broadcast was there a public announcement instructing civilians how to prepare for the worst. On sana.sy, the official news agency’s website, leading the news was a report refuting any evidence that the Syrian government was behind last week’s chemical attack. The rest of the news focused only on supporting the Syrian government’s argument.
Again, there was no public announcement anywhere. It is not even clear whether Damascus would sound the air raid sirens ahead of the attack, even though prior to 2010, air raid siren “drills” were a weekly occurrence.
The absence of any apparent leadership by Syrian authorities to protect civilians has left one 28-year-old graphic designer wondering why U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not step in to pick up that slack in his latest speech on Friday.
“I wish he’d say something along the lines of, oh, I don’t know, maybe that us civilians need not worry for our safety, that we’ll be ok,” said Nada. “I don’t know, anything that shows that he sees us, that he knows we’re here and he’s not out to harm us. God only knows we’ve seen enough death already.”