Damascus life goes on through the barricades
Soldiers – some young, others ‘Dad’s Army’ reservists – man checkpoints in the Syrian capital
Israeli soldiers walk together during training close to the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria on the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. Photograph: Reuters/Baz Ratner
The flow of traffic along the broad boulevards of the oldest city on earth swirls around fixed and temporary barricades erected over the past six months and moves sluggishly through checkpoints manned by armed soldiers.
Waist and head-high, the permanent barricades are painted white and decorated with the red, white, black Syrian flag with two green stars.
Tall barricades divide the wide avenue leading from al-Sham Square to the fountain of Seven Springs Square where stands the central bank, a frequent target of bombers. Most of the area has been pedestrianised.
Government offices located on Shukri Kuwatli Street and Omayad Square, where the water plumes from the fountain sparkle in the sun, are also sheltered by tall barricades. Some main thoroughfares are completely closed, others cut in half by short barricades, also painted pristine white.
At checkpoints, soldiers wave vehicles through or order drivers to stop and open car boots for inspection. At major crossings soldiers sit behind machine guns in sandbagged positions ready to fire in case of attack.
At any time on any day, they could be killed or maimed. Some are young, others silver-haired reservists from “dad’s army”. At one checkpoint a trooper inspects my taxi with the very fraudulent bomb-detecting wand deployed in Iraq. The device put its manufacturer in a British prison for 10 years but news of his incarceration has not trickled through to Damascus.
Traffic is heavy, buses are full of passengers, and taxis are difficult as it is the first day of work after a six-day May 1st and Easter holiday.
Everywhere I go the main topic of discussion is Israel’s bombing of sites northwest of Damascus early on Easter morning. “Where were you? What did you see?” asks the stationery shop owner who sells me a notebook.
A saleswoman who lives in the northern suburb of Dummar says she slept through the blast but was awakened by her husband to see the night sky glow yellow after the bombs set targets alight.
No planes or helicopters are overhead but hollow reports of mortars punctuate the hot spring day. The purple-blue jacaranda trees are in blossom and the city’s parks are filled with people sitting on benches and chatting.
After lunch at a functioning Indian restaurant – only two tables taken – I walk across Shukri Kuwatli Street via the president’s bridge, stroll along the fence of the museum, closed for the duration of the war, to the gate of Damascus University, where 15 students of the architecture faculty were killed on March 28th by a rogue mortar fired from Kafr Sousseh, 2km away.
Final exams have begun and the streets are filled with girls, their pretty faces framed by fashionable headscarves, and boys with unshaven chins and tight jeans. Large blue buses deliver students to near and far suburbs where there is a measure of calm. Two students came to my hotel from Jdeidat Artouz, a town to the west, prepared to stay the night if the road was closed. Their families monitor the situation on the road throughout the day before telling them whether to return. Snipers abound and kidnappers prowl.
Booksellers have set up their wares on the top of the wall across from the university. There are Arabic novels, textbooks, and histories, but no foreign language offerings. There are no foreigners here to buy books in German, French or English. Although I am clearly foreign, I get few curious looks. No one, so far, has uttered the common greeting “Welcome to Syria”.
The war is everywhere and anywhere. From the university to the main fronts at Jobar, to the east, and Daraya to the southwest, it’s 7km. Qassioun Mountain, where the army has parked its heavy guns, is about the same. Damascenes carry on with their lives as best they can under the shadow of gun, mortar, and artillery shell and despite the threat of suicide and car bombers who evade barricades and checkpoints and target everyone and anyone.