Damascus carries on in the shadow of conflict
As war rocks pockets of Syria and its capital, in much of Damascus the problems seem a long way off, writes MICHAEL JANSEN
LIFE WENT on as normally as possible yesterday in Damascus as troops and rebels battled in the streets of Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial hub. Damascus’s main fruit and vegetable market was open, government offices were functioning, shops were conducting business, and traffic jams slowed journeys from one part of the city to another.
Street traders laid their wares out on pavements to catch the eyes of passers-by who might want a Ramadan present for a relative or friend.
Overnight there had been five loud explosions somewhere in the Ghouta, an agricultural stretch of countryside, but there were no blasts or snatches of machine-gun fire during the day.
An entrance to the Old City, Bab Touma (St Thomas’s Gate), the site of a fire fight last week, shows no sign of damage, though six death announcements have been pasted on the wall of a building. Killings and kidnappings are common. Three people I know are in mourning for lost friends or relatives.
Bab Sharqi (the East Gate) was devoid of tourists. Half the shops on one street were closed. There are only two types of tourists these days: journalists armed with pens and jihadis carrying Kalashnikovs.
A stout merchant shook his head. The British, the Germans are “shadows” of their former selves, he said. “Europe has lost its voice. Europeans have shed their identities and are led – we don’t need to say by whom.
“They know nothing about Syria, but they are prepared to dictate to Syrians about how we are governed.”
During two weeks in this grand city, I have seen only two areas that have seen serious fighting. In “New Midan” a burnt out bus re- mains on the side of a road scattered with rubble and a mosque had its windows holed by shell-fire. At Palestine Square in the Yarmouk district, the main police station was gutted by fire but is still being used as a base by the local force.
The town of Douma, 10 kilometres north of Damascus, is said to have been devastated but kidnappers are at work there and it is not safe for outsiders to visit. A Kurdish friend said a truck driver delivering supplies to the town was abducted by men who wanted a million Syrian pounds (€120,000) in ransom. The family, poor country folk, collected half the amount and the man was freed. The abductors wanted him to make a video saying he had defected, but he argued that he was just a truck driver.
Yesterday afternoon at four, a group of about 100 youngsters, boys in T-shirts and girls in white headscarves, marched past the Hijaz railway station near my hotel, calling on president Bashar al-Assad to depart. By the time I rushed to the corner, they had disappeared, leaving behind a flutter of paper strips on the street which amazed cleaners promptly swept up. This protest may well have been the briefest ever recorded.