Explosions punctuate stroll around city
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.