Inside Damascus, Fear And Refugees As Assad Battles Rebels In The Capital

on July 25 2012 12:49 PM
People look at damage at al-Midan neighbourhood in Damascus July 23, 2012.
People look at damage at al-Midan neighbourhood in Damascus July 23, 2012. REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Han

This article was written by a reporter for the IBTimes in Damascus, whose name has been withheld for security reasons.

DAMASCUS, Syria - As their country descends further into civil war, Damascenes struggle to return to normal life, but many fear the worst is yet to come.

The Syrian capital last week endured the worst violence it has seen in decades. Syrian military helicopters fired at densely populated neighborhoods in the heart of Damascus, as government forces and rebels exchanged fire on the ground.

For days, the sound of mortar shelling could be heard throughout the city, which is surrounded by hilltops that produce an echo. Rising columns of black smoke usually followed the sound of explosions, and the acrid smell of fire lingered for hours.

Government tanks rolled through the streets, leaving their permanent tread marks in the asphalt.

The assault on Damascus came after a bomb last week rocked a heavily fortified government building in the city center, killing four of president Bashar al Assad's top aides, including the president's brother-in-law.

The rebel Free Syrian Army took responsibility for the attack.

While other parts of Syria have endured massive shelling over the past 16 months of conflict, the sounds of helicopter fire and mortar shells are new to Damascus.

"When was Damascus ever like this?" asked Basil, an amateur historian in his mid-fifties. "Never in my lifetime! This city hasn't seen a battle since the French bombed it in World War Two."

Perhaps due to the international outrage over the destruction and death toll in Syria, averaging over 100 civillians killed per day since the rebellion began last year, the Syrian government seems to be following a new protocol in Damascus. Before shelling a neighborhood, government forces advise residents through voice amplifiers to evacuate their homes, sometimes giving them just minutes to do so.

It is not clear whether this protocol has saved lives, but it has created huge numbers of displaced people within the capital, and there are no signs that the government extends any form of temporary relief to the affected people.

Some residents recall chilling scenes of fleeing civilians from one neighborhood within the city to another. One of them is Lamia, who lives near the embattled neighborhood of Adawi, where government forces clashed with rebels last week and residents were evacuated late at night. She withheld her last name for fear of reprisal.

"It was after midnight, and our electricity was out. So to cool off, we were sitting on our balcony," she said.

"Suddenly, we heard the sound of people. There were babies crying and people talking. Then we started seeing tons and tons of people appearing on the highway below, most of them women, coming from the direction of Adawi."

"They were walking, carrying babies and dragging small children behind them. Some carried a mattress, pillows, plastic bags filled with things. I heard some say 'Where are we going to go? Where are we going to go?'."

Syrians are unaccustomed to seeing homeless people in the streets. Whatever their circumstances, people in Syria rely on their large reserve of family members to avoid homelessness if they fall on hard times.

But with the recent government raids on rebel neighborhoods, entire families have been displaced, with nowhere left to go.

During a casual stroll in the capital on Monday, a naked baby could be seen crying on the grass inside a public park, while a young woman nearby appeared to be cleaning a rag with a bar of soap and brown water that trickled out of a recently-watered patch of grass.

At Iftar time, when Muslims break their fast for the holy month of Ramadan that began last week, a man could be seen carrying two large bags of fried chicken and entering an empty school building, where he and about a dozen family members appeared to be squatting. They did not want to talk to a reporter.

This week, government forces say they took back control from the rebels inside the embattled areas in the capital and its suburbs. Clashes with rebels have subsided, and although gunfire and shelling could be heard sporadically in the distance, Damascenes no longer wake up to the sounds of a war zone.

But life is far from normal.

In some neighborhoods, snipers could be seen on the rooftops of buildings, their rifles aimed down at the street. Armed military men stand at the ready throughout the capital's busy streets, their Russian-made AK-47 assault rifles aimed at pedestrians. Government security men, armed and dressed in plain clothes, also strike the same posture.

Government thugs, known as Shabiha, drive civillian cars with the apparent purpose of scaring people. They speed through tiny streets, frightening pedestrians, and skid around sharp street corners with little regard for public safety. Many people have the feeling that these government forces can act with impunity.

"If they run me over and kill me, who's to argue with them?" said one woman. "All they have to say is I was acting suspicious."

Other Damascenes have fled the country. Over the past few days alone, more than 30,000 have crossed over into neighboring Lebanon. This has left an eerie mark on the Syrian capital.

At night, many homes have no signs of life in them. Many of the city apartment buildings are pitch dark, their window shutters closed.

There are signs of fear within the Assad regime, too. International sanctions prevent many inside the Syrian government from moving assets out of Syria and fleeing in case rebels arrive at their doorstep. Some are doing their best to fortify their homes.

In the affluent Damascus neighborhood of Malki, inside the apartment building where the president's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, lives, there are stacks of metallic boxes filled with ammunition. The previously ordinary building with low-profile security is now surrounded by a wall of stone and iron.

Armed Shabiha in plain clothes stand at the ready: huge men, with steroid-like muscles. On their biceps, they have tattoos. They depict the face of the man whose regime they are defending: Bashar al-Assad.

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