Special report: How Damascus became a city at war

The extent of the violence is both exaggerated and understated by rumour or propaganda

Damascus

In the heart of Damascus fear is almost tangible. A dull booming sound from distant shelling reverberates across the city at night, individual detonations merging with each other.

Occasionally there is a bigger explosion as a bomb or shell bursts nearer the centre. By day the city is crowded with people who are refugees from even more dangerous parts of Syria, but by 6 or 7pm the streets become eerily empty.

The mood is one of gloom and despair. "The government says it is winning and the rebels say they are winning, but I don't believe either of them," said one businessman. "Out of 15 members of my family I am the only one who has not left the country."

A Christian, possibly biased because of his fear of an Islamic fundamentalist takeover, said: "Fifteen per cent of Syrians are for the government, 15 per cent are against, and 70 per cent of us just want the fear and the killing to stop."

In the past six months war has come to Damascus. There are checkpoints everywhere, soldiers examining drivers' papers and looking for weapons in the boots of cars. There is a shortage of bread, possibly because of the sharply increased number of internally displaced persons, though petrol is easily available. In the past couple of weeks there have been electricity cuts for six to nine hours a day because a power station in the south of the capital was reportedly damaged.

When I was last in Damascus in early summer people here were still having picnics on the slopes of Mount Qassioun, which overlooks the city, at the same time as there was ferocious fighting in Homs which left much of it in ruins. Villagers in Houla had been bloodily massacred, allegedly by pro-government militiamen. But checkpoints were fewer and more relaxed and the international airport was still open. Yesterday the Free Syrian Army declared it a military target, but even before this few planes would have chanced a landing.

Even taking into account that today is Friday and it has been raining in Damascus, the streets have a desolate and menacing feel. For once, the traffic policemen outside the magnificent Ottoman Hejaz railway station have no traffic to direct. Earlier in the year many restaurants were doing little business, but there were still smart cafés with plenty of customers. Not any more.

The situation has markedly deteriorated since mid-summer. The rebels launched an assault then that was largely beaten off by government counter-attacks. Now it has resumed with heavy fighting in the outer townships. Violence flares up and dies away, but it is never far away. People with enough money to get their families out of Syria have done so.

"I only stay because 29 people would lose their jobs if my business closed," said one acquaintance. The journey to Beirut once took a couple of hours, but now takes far longer as thousands of people make their way past eight checkpoints on the short road between here and the Lebanese border. There is little traffic coming in the opposite direction and what drivers there are entering Syria have a tense look on their faces.

The extent of the violence is both exaggerated and understated by rumour or propaganda. For instance, last week there was a bomb outside the Red Crescent Society's headquarters that killed one man. Damage was reported to the Red Crescent's large yellow building. But a visit to the site of the bombing showed that somebody had put a bomb under a BMW in an attempt to kill an official which had succeeded only in killing his driver, while the Red Crescent HQ did not even lose its windows.

Some of the violence is worse than reported or is not reported at all. For instance, on 28 November a bomb went off in a car in the Christian-Druze township of Jaramana at 6.45am. A local man recalled that "many people rushed to help and then 20 minutes later they saw a second car with four people in it and smoked windows. They thought it must belong to the police but it blew up and killed 68 people and injured 125 more."

Damascus is not quite under siege as the rebels claim, but many roads are closed in and around the capital. A diplomat said: "The government is trying to control Damascus, Aleppo and the road linking the two through Homs and Hama." He believes that the pressure is growing "but it is always tempting to declare that a tipping point between government and opposition has been reached, but I don't think we are there yet." He added that, at the same time, "you get the sense that in Damascus the wolf is at the door and is not going to go away".

It is what the wolf will do in future that causes so much alarm in Damascus. Rumours are rife. People do not visit other parts of the city unless they have to. Six months ago I drove with UN monitors to the township of Douma a few miles to the north-east of Damascus. It was under the control of the opposition and, although there had been arrests and killings, it was intact. But when I got back to central Damascus several people assured me that Douma had been flattened by artillery fire and were disbelieving when I denied it. When I asked a friend yesterday what was happening in the town he said: "I don't know because I haven't been there in a year and I wouldn't let anybody working for me go there because it is too dangerous."

Day-to-day survival absorbs most people in Damascus. Questions that attract great publicity abroad such as the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army seem academic and contrived. Conventional weapons used by both sides are quite enough to prolong the fear and slaughter.

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