Explosions punctuate stroll around city

Sat, Jul 28, 2012, 01:00

While bombs blast unfortunate sectors of the city, Midan has been retaken and life goes on, writes MICHAEL JANSENin Damascus

DAMASCUS SWELTERS, dozing. It is the second Friday in the fasting month of Ramadan. Damascenes stay up until dawn and sleep late, stay home, and surf television news programmes and the web.

The streets outside my hotel near the elegant 1920s Hijaz railway station, now a museum, are largely empty. There are few cars, fewer people. But this is normal on the weekly holiday during the fast.

Shops are shuttered. Mounds of rubbish disappeared as soon as collection resumed after government troops retook the central district of Midan.

As my colleague and I reach the footbridge across Shukri al- Kuwatli, a main thoroughfare, three loud, resonant explosions remind us that this is a city at war. The blasts seem to come from the diplomatic districts of Malki and Abu Rummana.

We cross the bridge and stroll into the park where a few people are sitting on benches. They nod, murmur welcomes and smile to see foreigners in their midst. Hissing sprinklers spray the lush grass, bushes and plants.

At Arab League Square we pause to look down broad Abu Rummana Street towards the Saudi embassy. A few yellow taxis are cruising for customers. Explosions are commonplace.

On the street that runs behind parliament, two soldiers, AK47s slung on straps over their shoulders, are stopping cars and checking boots. They are the only troops we see during our walk.

Our destination is the Aroma Cafe, a hangout for students, intellectuals and courting couples. The waffle shop on the corner is shuttered but the cafe is open. In the showcase on the ground floor, huge chocolate cakes share shelves with apple tarts and brownies.

The restaurant-cafe upstairs, decorated in Andalusian style, is empty. We choose a table with a window shaded by the thick leaves of the tree outside. The waiter brings us spring water while we wait for frappuccinos.

We walk along the shaded arcade in front of the Cham Palace Hotel to Yousef al-Azmi Square. The statue of the hero, dust on his helmet and shoulders, stares down towards the Hijaz station. At his back we can see the fountains of Seven Springs Square, a frequent site of pro-government demonstrations. The crump of distant explosions punctuates our journey back to the hotel. At the corner, neighbourhood watchmen wave and call good morning. During last week’s fighting in Midan, bullets were whizzing down this street, says my colleague.

A family of refugees is lodging at my modest family hotel.

When I was last here in May, it was frequented by men flying in from Aleppo or Latakiya who had business in Damascus and dared not come by road because of fighting and carjacking.

Today there are no flights from Aleppo because of the clashes between government troops and rebels. A resident reached by phone says wealthy and middle- class districts are not caught up, but water, electricity, fuel and food supplies are disrupted.

Everyone I meet has a story. Khalil, a Kurd who lives in the upper Rukn al-Din area of Damascus, says that although there was fighting nearby, his neighbourhood has been quiet.

Some youths, he states, joined the rebels who were offering weapons and about $220 a month, but community leaders convinced the lads to hand in their arms to the police in exchange for amnesty.

At teatime we catch a taxi to Mezze, where roadblocks manned by armed civilians force us to drive round the neighbourhood as helicopters circle overhead.

George Jabbour, a former member of parliament, academic and current president of the Syrian UN association, offers us cold drinks and chocolates.

“If Obama and Putin sit down for one or two hours, they could work out a solution to the crisis and preserve Syrian lives,” he states. “If these leaders lean on their supporters we would have a solution . . . I think the Americans will make some sort of compromise because if Syria follows the example of Iraq, the area will become so bloody that it will bloody the oil.”

SYRIA HOSTAGES JOURNALISTS RELEASED

Two journalists who were kidnapped in northern Syria have been released after being held for just over a week by foreign jihadists who wanted to trade them for ransom after accusing them of spying.

The men, both freelance photographers, John Cantlie, a Briton, and Jeroen Oerlemans, from the Netherlands, were captured on July 19th by a group of men they identified as jihadists who had travelled to Syria to join the uprising against the regime.

In an interview with NOS Netherlands, a Dutch television station, Oerlemans said he and Cantlie stumbled upon the jihadist camp after being led across the Turkish border by a Syrian guide. Both men were shot when they tried to escape. Oerlemans has recovered from a gunshot wound to his thigh.

The jihadist group is believed to be made up of men who identify with a salafist jihadist world view, a more puritanical version of Islam. – (Guardian service)