Damascus, a city cast 40 years back


She holds on tightly to the metal fence and delivers a symphony of high tones to another woman, sitting in the park under a palm tree. She is shaken and furious. The women are insulting one another and are on the brink of a physical confrontation.

By: Hrvoje Ivančić

Photos: Hrvoje Ivančić

A crowd begins to gather, a military patrol arrives and tries to calm the situation. Children gather around the sitting woman, in front of them a fire burns in the surrounding branches and garbage, while behind the palm is a makeshift shelter of foil and plastic bags, a poor replacement for a home. We are in the very centre of Damascus, in Aramani Park. The arguing women are refugees for various parts of Syria, and they are battling over the spot under the old palm tree, whose lower leaves have already been burned in the campfire. Though the refugees are housed in camps, some of them head out to find their own spot wherever they can. Children run about, beg and survive while playing. The streets are flooded with people, yellow taxis rush by and at first glance it would appear to be business as usual; almost normal for a city with millions of people. But the air above the streets is heavy, weighed down by an uncertainty blown in from the suburbs occupied by the militant forces.

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It is hard to tell just what the population of Damascus is today. Official reports say 3 million, though that figure has long since been surpassed. Ten years ago, the city was flooded by refugees from Iraq, today by the persecuted from within Syria. Some have relocated here from distant regions, others from the suburbs where the battle for the capital is ongoing. Full as a beehive, with only a single exit out of the country towards Lebanon, 70 km away, Damascus is fighting back harder than ever. Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the nation’s territory has been mangled, rutted by hundreds of thousands of grenades. The cities are conquered first by the rebel groups, then by the government forces, and battles are being fought for every house, building and street. The rebel forces, led by ISIL or “Daesh” (the Arabic name) and the Front Al-Nusra hold larges patches of Syria. ISIL has established a parallel government from the eastern town of Raka. Conflicts among the extremists are not a rarity, and even the most informed analysts find it difficult to follow who has formed a pact with whom and when. In any case, the capital city has not been spared its share of battle and destruction. Currently, it stands in the third of the national territory controlled by the government forces, the Syrian Arab Army and its loyal militia forces such as the Hezbolah, the armed formation of the Bat party, and the Front for the Liberation of Palestine. If we were to mark the parts of Damascus under occupation or in battle on a map, it would be evident that the entire city has been surrounded. However, in the field, things unfold differently, as this is an unconventional war reaming with unknown factors. For example, public transport functions normally at the dividing line, with buses driving along the road that marks the border and dividing a neighbourhood into two opposing sides.

The southern suburbs have until recently been peaceful due to the truce between the Syrian Army (SAA) and the Syrian Liberation Army (FSA). However, conflict erupted again in the Palestine refugee camp Jarmuk following an infiltration of ISIL members. Battles rage in the Duma suburb to the north, and in the Joubar and Harasti suburbs to the east. At the exit of the town, settlements have been destroyed, buildings levelled, without any signs of life. The power in the area enables the government forces to constantly bomb rebel areas, or, as one Syrian official put it, “All buildings from which a single rebel bullet is shot will be levelled to the ground”. In Homsa, 150 km away, the militants have dug into the very heart of the old town. The siege lasted a full two years until they retreated as part of an agreement. They left behind a ghost town, concrete walls full of holes and the occasional dog digging through the garbage. The protest against the regime has long since turned into the aggression of Islamic groups against the secular Syrian system and its population.

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Whatever the situation is, the people of Damascus are unlikely to be dissuaded from their great addiction: time spent in the cafes over tea, coffee and the narghil. If you were to be teleported here, it would be difficult to conclude that just 6 km away, battles are being fought to the last drop of blood. Damascus, known for its liveliness that extends deep into the night, has calmed somewhat. The streets are empty by 10 pm. Only automobiles pass through to their destinations. When the traffic calms on non-working days, the streets ring out with a symphony of generators due to the constant power outages.

“Things are good now. Half a year ago, we only had electricity for three hours a day,” explains Mohamed (45), a receptionist who moved here from a southern suburb of Damascus when the rebels took over his settlement. “The people simply don’t have enough money and they are fighting to survive until the end of the month. That is why the streets are empty at night, not because of security, because I think the city is quite secure. There are patrols on every corner. But the prices are going up every day. The price of electricity, gas and food are rising, while wages are getting smaller. Before the war, a dollar was worth 50 pounds, now it is only worth 250”.

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The image is the same in every city that has ever felt the terrors of war. There are control points and concrete barricades on virtually every street. The Syrian flag flies from every building, and the shops have been painted with the national symbols. There is a feeling of unity, and a desire to get back to a normal life. They are all hoping the war will end soon. The faith in the army is high.

Occasionally, the sounds of battle can be heard in the distance at night, and it has occurred that the rebels fire a few grenades towards the city centre. Even still, for some, war is the last thing on their minds.

“There are people who don’t even think about the war or don’t even care that battles are happening just 6 km from the city centre,” explains Rana from the Ministry of Information. I saw the truth in these words myself upon entering into Damascus. The woman who shared my taxi from Beirut was shocked to hear that the conflict is raging in the city suburbs. She thought they were “somewhere far away”. She had headed to Damascus to visit a friend. On the way there, she will stop at a shopping centre, and later in one of the many cafes playing songs by the popular Lebanese singer Fairuz. They adore her here.

Though the Lebanese border is just 70 km away, there are more than a dozen control points along the road. The soldiers control every vehicle. In some, their searches are extensive, inspecting every bag, every blanket and every pocket. Most of all, they love taxis with Lebanese registration plates. There is an unwritten rule that the taxi drivers pay a small bribe of one dollar at virtually every control point. This small tax is calculated into the initial fare price. If the driver does not pay, the search begins and the wait can be over an hour. There are dozens of taxis driving along this road every day.

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The old market, the “souk” that spreads around the Umayyad mosque that houses the grave of the great military leader Saladin, who crushed the crusaders and the head of John the Baptist, functions just as it did centuries ago, with its colourful shops and restaurants. The only difference now is that there are control points set up at every entrance. Bags are checked in details, occasionally pockets and pant legs are inspected.

Since the start of the war, there have been many car bombs exploding in Damascus. One was set off right in front of the old market, killing more than fifty. Since then, the controls have been more rigorous, and for a time, traffic was completely prohibited through the centre.

At a time when the government controls but a third of the country, this territory is inhabited by two-thirds of the population. This is also the most fertile land, and Syria that was once a large food exporter is still able to feed its population. The refugees in camps also receive donations from humanitarian organisations.

The food in Damascus is still inexpensive, but for those whose wages have been cut several times in the past four years, every pound matters. They try to save on even the smallest expense. Food producers around Damascus are also facing numerous problems in production and distribution.

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“I buy food from producers in the villages around Damascus. Not only is the price of fuel high, but the trip takes four or more hours, where it used to take one hour. All this increases the price, which is reflected on sales. People are still carefully weighing what they will buy and how much. Profits are much lower than before the war,” says market seller Nidal (30), who risks his life every day travelling from the village to the city in the early morning hours. “Occasionally it is impossible for the villagers to produce food because of the battles going on right there, and due to water shortages. Some foodstuffs, such as coriander, have increased in price from 5 to 35 pounds,” he explains.

Raka is the capital of what has been called the Islamic State, held by the terrorist organisation that holds one-third of Syria, mostly in the east. This is where the brutal beheading of a journalist took place. At the edge of the Jobar suburb, to the east of Damascus, buses depart daily for various parts of Syria, including five buses for Raka.

Initially it looked like a bizarre joke, but a glance at the bus stop and the massive sign in Arabic reading “Al-Raka” convinced me that the system is working. Sworn enemies fight, civilians travel and go about their business.

“The trip to Raka (note: about 400 km away) takes eight hours. We pass through 30 control points. Some are government, some ISIL. About 200 passengers take this trip every day, for work, or to visit friends and family,” says a passenger Mohamed (32), an engineer. He also worked as an engineer before ISIL took Raka. “Life has changed and we have no choice but to adapt,” he adds.

Radman (40), another passenger, says that there are many bans, there is no internet and you can only watch television in your room. The religious police are on constant patrol and punishing people. “I was beaten with a whip for ten full days for smoking a cigarette. That is why I come to Damascus, and light up with gusto,” he says.

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“The city is full of foreign soldiers. They come from Tunisia, Turkey, Italy, Egypt, the Caucasus. My wife was killed in an American bombing raid, they happen every few days,” says Hamad (55) just before boarding the bus that will take him to the black heart of the ISIL terror organisation. None of the passengers want to be photographed, and the driver forbid me from photographing the logo on the bus. He says that he does not want to be notices by the foreign media and receive a punishment of whipping.

At the National Museum, Professor Dr. Mamun Abdulkarim heads up the Antiquities Department. Since the beginning of the conflict, he has been trying to save all he can. He stands in the central room of the museum that is completely empty, without a single statue on the shelves. “We have moved all the artefacts into the basement or into secure warehouses, far from the bombs, moisture and other things that could damage them. We want to conserve this heritage for our children and grandchildren,” he says.

He knows about the ISIL destruction of the ancient cities of Iraq, and similar events are occurring in Syria. Similarly, one of the main means of financing this terrorist organisation is the sale of art and antiquities. With the sale of oil to Turkey and ransom for captured citizens, this is their third most lucrative criminal business.

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“We are caring for ten thousand sites, though unfortunately some have already been lost forever. We are trying to develop a network of associates throughout Syria. In some cities, such as Idlib, which recently fell into militant hands, we still have associates who are working to preserve the antiquities. Some of my former students are on the side of the opposition, but we communicate every day by Viber or Whatsapp in order to protect this country’s legacy, as it knows no political orientation. I can work with anyone, but with these barbarians, just starting negotiations is impossible,” says Dr. Abdulkarim. “We are trying to get all the antiquities to safe positions in Damascus so that we can safely return them to their place once the conflict ends. It is disheartening that there are people in the world who buy plundered treasure. Just last year, we discovered 6300 stolen artefacts in the hands of smugglers. The number already taken out of Syria is much higher,” he continues, explaining that the main smuggling routes pass through Turkey and Lebanon.

The fiercest battles near Damascus are fought in the Palestinian camp Jarmuk, just 6 km from the city centre. In early April, ISIL soldiers took the camp, and just how this happened, is not yet clear. The camp was founded in 1957 and virtually functions as a state within a state, with its own self-administration. It is called a camp, but in actuality, it is part of the city. This is one of many Palestine camps in the region, and the largest in Syria.

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At the start of the conflict, the Syrian Liberation Army and the Syrian Army concluded an agreement on the neutrality of the camp. This remained the case until recently, when ISIL fighters entered the camp, allegedly let in from the southern suburb Hajar al-Asvad by soldiers of the Front Al-Nusra. The Syrian Army, which stands at the entrance to the camp, concluded an agreement with the Palestine militia, and according to the most recent information, they have completely forced out ISIL, though the accuracy of these reports is very difficult to verify due to the fluidity of these military groups.

“The problem continues to be the Front al-Nusra, which now controls the greater part of the camp, and during the conflict with ISIL they were neutral. Though ISIL has been forced out, it is difficult to say how many fighters from which groups are staying in the camp. Some camp residents have joined the opposition, while the majority have stood on the side of the government forces,” says General Jamal in the command centre at the very entrance of the camp.

On the other side of the camp, just across the street, are many Palestinians who left their homes two years ago, during the first rounds of fighting. Several of them have raised a tent on the street, as a symbol of their desire to return to their home, in the Palestinian camp.

“Two and a half years ago, I was forced, with tens of thousands of other citizens, to leave my home. My wife and I and our nine children took only our most necessary things and left the camp.  Since then, I have been sitting here on the street and watching the camp every day, expecting an end to the fighting so we can return home,” explains Muhamed (55), pointing to the street where a long column of uniformed personnel is walking. “They shoot into the air, they drive a coffin. They celebrate Shehid,” he says. Shehid is a revered martyr. At one time, Muhamed was part of the delegation of mediators in the talks with Al-Nusra in the camp. “We agreed to a truce with them, but just three days later, they would break it. And so on, several times. It is difficult to make deals with them.”

Though the majority of the population has left the camp, according to General Jamal, there are still some 6000 people living there. He says they are family members of the opposition fighters, and are used as a human shield.

Humanitarian organisations, particularly UNRWA, deliver aid but their entry is not safe due to dangers from snipers. While I was at the camp, a sniper injured a boy (13) who had been standing at the entrance of the camp.

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“While we were negotiating with Front Al-Nusra, I saw many foreign fighters, including about a dozen from Bosnia. It is difficult to say which formation they fight in, at least for the Jarmuk camp. Though Nusra and ISIL are in conflict in the rest of the country, in the militant camp they often fly one flag in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. They say that ISIL has been forced out of the camp, but it may be that they only torched the flags and took another,” says Muhamed in front of the camp, in his small, temporary tent strung up between two trees and with a view of Jarmuk. More people gather, willing to tell their stories, their theories and views of another bloody episode of the war in Syria. The parade with the dead martyr breaks up after several hundred shots fired into the air, as a sign of celebration of “he who is beloved by God”.

Just 500 m away, in the direction of the city, life is unfolding in a classic rhythm of street noise. Soldiers sit in the parks and cafes, awaiting their call to head to the front. Their uniform markings indicate they are members of the Syrian Army, the Bat militia party, the National Defence Forces (NDF) and the Lebanese Hezbolah. Huntington’s theory about the conflict of civilisations does not hold up here, as there are basically no fabricated sect conflicts within the capital. There are only those that attack, and those that defend. The Syrian revolution has long been hijacked by the global brokers, the international Islam brigades and weapons and ancient art smugglers. Half the country has been turned to ash. According to the UN, if the war were to end today, it would take a full forty years to return the nation to its prewar state.

 published in Globus weekly, April 2015. 

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Damascus, a city cast 40 years back

She holds on tightly to the metal fence and delivers a symphony