Robert Fisk: ‘We don’t really know what war is like. We haven’t seen it yet’

The Independent's Middle East correspondent, reporting from Damascus, finds Syrians hardened to routine, ubiquitous violence

Share

“The unbearable lightness of being.” I apologise to Milan Kundera, who wrote the line. But this is Damascus and that is the only title. I was on the phone less than 24 hours ago, offering my pathetic condolences to an old friend. “Thank you for calling, Robert,” was all he could say, in tears. We had been chatting in the morning, arranging to meet later in the day. Then at two o’clock in the afternoon, on the way to her home, his mother – a chauffeur at the wheel for she was an engineer – was murdered. A single shot. The only shot fired into the car. And it killed her. She was buried yesterday morning, in the beautiful hill village above Latakia.

My friend had told me that as a journalist, he walked on ice. It was becoming more and more dangerous to go to his family home. His father is a retired army officer who served in Lebanon. A proud family, loyal to the regime but free with its criticism. Victims, all of them now, of the President’s enemies.

Within hours, I am in a restaurant on the Mezzeh boulevard; swish cars, fine food, laid-back middle-class customers, 10 at night, talking freely, all of them contemptuous (fearful too?) of al-Nusrah Islamists – and a sentence pops up in the middle of a conversation with a good friend, a lawyer. “Three of my employees were murdered,” he says. “They were taken from their car north of Deraa. They were tortured first, then murdered. They were Alawites.”

I am taken aback by the frankness of it all. The suddenness with which it enters our conversation. When I tell him about my friend’s mother and tell him I am upset, he says simply: “That’s because you don’t live here all the time.” And it’s true, you hear things in Damascus and, after a few hours, the human double-take stops operating. I am chatting to a government official, and out of the blue she tells me that a member of her family was murdered.

His head was cut off – by a young boy. His execution was videotaped by his killers. She actually saw the video of his decapitation. I am stunned. Or am I? Damascenes no longer are. Nor, I fear, is the rest of Syria. Listen to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and they talk of their losses – a baby to government air strikes, a husband missing to the intelligence services – with the same bleak nonchalance.

I drop by to speak to a minister, an adviser to Assad – and discover that she now starts her day with yoga sessions. Yoga! In Damascus? She is a prolific author. Her new book contains hitherto confidential Syrian documents on the secret Clinton-Hafez al-Assad negotiations and she is optimistic, talking of government army gains. I am more circumspect.

A businessman admits that he “let go” an employee because he was a Sunni Muslim. You simply have to look after yourself, he explains. I am shocked, like a good Westerner should be. This is the sectarian wedge in all its reality, right there, freely admitted. But then, of course, there is the old question. What would I have done if I were a Syrian Christian?

Then yesterday afternoon, I am chatting to another confidant, a man involved in children’s charities. I assume the people of Damascus have taken in the shock of war. “No, we don’t know what it’s like – we haven’t really seen it yet,” he replies. “A lot of people don’t understand it. The people who carry bodies from Douma, they understand it. But I don’t have the guts to go and do that, to carry bodies.” A jet flies over us and there is the smack of an air-dropped bomb, almost certainly on the opposition-held suburb of Daraya. The windows rattle appropriately, a slight change of air pressure.

At my hotel, the staff watch television, one of them literally open-mouthed, as captured rebels explain the details of their battle against the government, how money arrives in untold quantities from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. When one of the prisoners speaks, his face is inter-cut with videotape of his own press conference after originally defecting from the government army. There he is in green uniform, a bearded member of the Free Syria Army, self-confident, safe. And then he is back full-face on television, a bamboo curtain behind him to screen the walls of his Damascus dungeon.

In one way, I fear all Damascus is a dungeon. Or do you have to live here to appreciate that?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own