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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Nursery Assistants RequiredNursery Assis...

Supply Teachers needed in Bolton!

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Are you a ...

English Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: ENGLISH TEACHER REQUIREDWe are ...

Trainee / Experienced Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments