DAMASCUS, Syria -- Six months ago, Rami almost took up arms and joined the Syrian rebellion.
For months prior, and almost on a daily basis, the 20-year-old marched in the streets with his neighbors, school friends, and most everyone else he knew. It seemed that the entire district of Barzeh, a middle-class neighborhood of urban sprawl located north of Damascus, with an estimated population of over 45,000, had risen up against the Syrian regime.
In Damascus, those were the days of peaceful protests that quickly turned deadly, followed by equally deadly funeral processions, then more protests. Government troops descended upon the area with fury, shooting live ammunition, killing, detaining and disappearing dozens every day. Yet the frightened local population seemed determined to continue their revolt.
For Rami (to protect identity, names in this story have been changed) and many of his friends, their parents were the only reason to hold back.
“We used to beg him not to go to the protests, but Rami attended every single one,” said Nada, Rami’s mother. “More times than I care to remember, I would duck in my own home to avoid live fire, and I would hear that protesters had just been killed, and my son still hadn’t returned home. So many times I prayed hard that my son was not among the dead. It was a scene from hell.”
In late March, all of this came to an abrupt end. Government troops surrounded Barzeh and raided it, clashing directly with the local men, who by then had taken up arms, having become convinced it was the only way to defend themselves and their homes. Most other civilians fled Barzeh around that time, perhaps without even being aware that this was the beginning of a long-running, exceptionally fierce military campaign by government troops to regain control over the rebellious district.
The Syrian population is about 22 million. The United Nations estimates that 7 million Syrians – in Damascus and elsewhere -- have fled their homes so far, many under similar circumstances.
Isam and Nada recall that frightening morning when they grabbed their son and daughter and nothing else. They jumped into the family car and fled amid intense machine-gun battles, tank fire and mortar shells. I met them for the first time later that day, on a beautiful and sunny afternoon in the lobby of their hotel in the heart of the capital, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Their son Rami was crestfallen. He resented his parents for forcing him to leave his home and friends, and what he still calls the revolution, as opposed to a civil war. He slept in his hotel room for hours that day and refused to talk to his family.
Today, Isam and Nada have settled with their children into a rental apartment in downtown Damascus. Both have maintained their jobs in the private sector, and Rami spends his days and nights online, coordinating with the activists and rebel friends he left behind.
“I don’t have to carry arms to fight,” he said, barely looking up from his computer screen in a darkened corner of the living room. “I do what I can from here.”
His mother later explained that Rami had recently lost his best friend in the fighting in Barzeh -- the latest death among several young people with whom he grew up.
“They were all beautiful and blessed boys who spent their childhoods in our home. For years, they’d come over for study hour and lunch and dinner, and my kids would go to their homes,” Nada said. “To be honest, I don’t know how all these kids keep their sanity with so much death around them.”
With no sign of when the fighting in Barzeh will abate, the family has no idea when they can return to their home, which they own free and clear.
From their temporary abode in the city center, Isam and Nada always tune their ears to any warplanes in the sky and try to ascertain if Barzeh is the target of this particular air raid. There were a few earlier this week, including three air raids on Friday early in the morning.
The air raids have become an all too familiar sound for more than a year now, as Syrian fighter jets bombard half a dozen other rebellious districts around Damascus, just as they bomb Barzeh.
First comes the sonic boom heard throughout the capital. Then comes the loud droning sound of the engines as the warplane descends in altitude, preparing to drop its bombs. Then comes the thud, immediately followed by an explosion, which from the safe distance of central Damascus sounds like faraway thunder.
A couple of days ago, the family heard that the target came very near to their home in Barzeh.
“A rocket landed in Fasouh Street,” Isam told Nada on Thursday evening, as we sat on their balcony sipping orange juice and speaking in hushed tones, lest the neighbors or the undercover state security who routinely comb the city hear us speak (I changed the name of their street in Barzeh to protect the location of their home.)
“That’s the street behind ours,” said Nada. “Oh, God. I’m sure all the glass windows have long been shattered in our apartment anyway.”
The family already knows that Barzeh rebels have taken over their home to use as shelter in the guerilla-style warfare.
“They dug tunnels from one apartment to the next, so they can move around freely,” Nada explained. This has been a common strategy throughout Syria, where both rebels and government troops incorporate private homes into a labyrinth of multistory trenches on the front lines, using them for sniper fire, grenade launchers, and as a place to regroup.
“But that’s alright by me,” says Nada. “Bless them. Let them have our home.”
Such an attitude is uncommon among people who live near and around her in central Damascus.
There are the regime loyalists who refuse to believe that a grass-roots rebellion ever took place in Syria, and instead subscribe to a global conspiracy theory, claiming that certain countries sent in foreign fighters and armed gangs to bring Syria to ruins. (It helps their argument that foreign fighters and armed gangs have indeed been among the strongest rebel brigades in other parts of Syria in recent months.)
There are also the ambivalent Damascenes, who say they support neither the rebels nor the regime, but just want an end to the uprising-turned-civil war, now in its third year, however that happens.
Then there are the Damascenes who support the uprising and hate the regime, but who, unlike others in Barzeh, never took up arms or dared to protest en masse in the streets. They keep a low profile and limit their public show of disdain. When passing armed state security men, they keep stoic faces and avert their eyes.
After U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech on Tuesday, when he signaled his acceptance of diplomatic talks, Damascenes of all stripes seemed to take a breather after a tense two weeks of hunkering down in the face of what appeared to be an imminent, U.S.-led strike. For the first time in months, cafes and restaurants appeared full well into the late hours of the evening.
But the mood in Nada’s home was markedly different.
“Abu Hussein let us down,” Isam said, referring to Obama by a popular local nickname -- an affectionate reference to "Hussein," his middle name. “We were really hoping things would change. But now, it seems like we’re in this for another long while.”
Nada agreed, her eyes appearing moist in the shadows.
“Oh, God, I swear we’re starting to believe that we must be the worst of humankind for God to punish us like this,” she said. “I swear sometimes my heart feels like it’s going to explode and lose its faith.”