The capital Damascus looks a little worn but locals are masters in the art of coping
Michael Jansen in Damascus
Damascus is a bit more down-at-heel than when I last visited at the end of July but rubbish is collected, streets are swept by diligent men pushing barrows, traffic jams form and dissolve, workers walk to their jobs shoulder to shoulder on thronged pavements, and students march behind Syrian flags to protest against the war that has no end.
Random mortars fall one by one or in showers. Electricity comes and goes, fluttering, faltering, surging. Water depends on power to pump the sacred fluid to rooftop tanks or up tall apartment blocks. Grubby orange and yellow generators roar and clack outside shops. Fuel is in short supply for generators, heaters and vehicles.
Inured to war
Cars queue at petrol stations. Bottles of cooking gas are highly prized. Middle-class women who have already sold their gold jewellery are now selling their silver, covertly. As the Syrian currency depreciates, prices soar for basic foodstuffs, clothing, everything.
Damascus is caught up in the rhythms of war. But the pulse of generators is no longer heard by Damascenes and the millions of outsiders who have flowed into the city. People ignore the thud of mortars striking the city; the crumple of heavy explosions in the suburbs; the roar of low-flying warplanes on their way to the source of the mortar launchers in the Eastern Ghouta held by Islamists.
They shrug off the flat, metallic report of shells leaving the barrels of artillery pieces, the whistle of their passage and dull thuds of their landings, the hee-haw of ambulances hurrying to hospitals ill-equipped to meet the demands of treating war-inflicted wounds.
The rhythms dictating the course of the war are anchored in the constant drumbeat of multiple combatants. From Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, the regional axis supporting armed groups demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. From his allies Russia and Iran, which boost his army with air cover, arms, and military “advisers” and reject calls for him to stand down.
The US and its western and other Arab allies modulate their positions, shifting from “Assad must go” to “Assad can stay”, creating then dashing hopes of some sort of accommodation with his government, which holds a quarter of Syria but rules 14 of the 18 million Syrians still living in their homeland.
A non-Arab diplomat long resident in Damascus is optimistic one day and pessimistic the next: “Now it’s about who will lose and who will win.” The formula that must be adopted is “no victor, no vanquished”, the diplomat says.
Syrians refuse to be vanquished, says Tammam Mehrez, head of disaster response for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. “Syrians have a high degree of resilience. Our coping capacity is very high”. They “get used” to the ever-changing “ugly” situation.
Former tour guide Joseph Bashoura agrees: “We adapt.” To deal with electricity cuts, “We buy car batteries and rig them up to light our homes, run our computers and charge our mobile phones.” Shops displaying batteries of all sizes and qualities have sprung up around the city.
During a meeting with a group of Syrian businessmen designing a rehabilitation project, the discussion turned to how people are coping after nearly five years of war.
William, who lives in a mainly Christian area near St Thomas Gate in the old city, says people there rarely ventured out after dark during the first years of the crisis but now go out normally – “This year we are going to have Christmas decorations and celebrations.”
Such celebrations are seen by mortar-slinging fundamentalist fighters as a challenge, St Thomas Gate being a favourite target.
Anas, who hosted the meeting, says: “I was a kid during 1967 [Arab-Israeli war]. I remember ’73 and the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood in the late ’70s and ’80s. We have had one war after another since then” – Iran-Iraq, US-Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon. Refugees and disruption. Death and destruction.
“We have survived and grown stronger.”
Later over tea, Hussam, a friend, says of the mass migration of Syrians to Europe: “People know Europe is not a paradise, things are hard there. They go only if it is necessary, they prefer to stay home. Most of the people who go want to come back. The life outside is not like the life here.”
Once the war ends, he adds, “We can rebuild the buildings. That is an easy thing. But we must change the people, ourselves, our mentality, from north to south, politicians and people. This war must make us better. The new generation has to learn from the war not to repeat it.”