Entire quarters of Damascus laid to waste

Families living in the beleaguered suburbs flee when shells begin to fall

Free Syrian Army fighters on a pick-up tuck, head towards the frontline  in Damascus. Photograph: Ward Al-Keswani/Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighters on a pick-up tuck, head towards the frontline in Damascus. Photograph: Ward Al-Keswani/Reuters


My small hotel in a central commercial district has 90 per cent occupancy. A couple from the beleaguered suburb of Harasta to the northeast arrives with their baby and a few possessions. They will stay for two nights while they search for a flat.

Knowing that they could lose their homes and possessions, families flee when shells begin to fall and clashes begin. Over the past year, entire quarters have been cleared of their inhabitants and laid to waste.

Before the war, semi-permanent hotel resident Rashid made a good living driving children to and from a private school and ferrying tourists to Aleppo and Palmyra. He had a four-room house on his own plot of land in the southwestern suburb of Daraya, a battlefield since last summer. “I left eight months ago and have not been back since because it is too dangerous. My house is completely destroyed. We lost everything. The armed groups used Daraya to attack Mezze [military] airfield....

“The rebels are from the Free Army and Jabhat al-Nusra. Most are strangers, not from Darya. They are [fundamentalist] jihadis from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Yemen. I lost friends and relatives on both sides. Some are in prison under investigation. But we expect them to be released.

“Now 75 per cent of Daraya is under control of the army and 25 per cent of the armed groups. Less than 20 per cent of the civilians, farmers, remain at the edge of Daraya, near the fields and olive plantations. None of my family and friends remain. About 30 per cent of the houses have survived while 70 per cent have been damaged or destroyed. Mafias have looted everything from the houses. They even pulled the electricity wires from the walls.”

Rashid has four children. His daughter (19) married four months ago and went to Lebanon to live with her husband’s uncle, a farm labourer. Nour (13) goes out to sell trinkets every day. Hear earns 150-200 Syrian pounds (140 to the dollar) but he has lost a year of school. Ranna is five and Omar 10 months.

So far, Rashid has managed to stay afloat because he has a salary from his company but the school is closing and there are no tourists.

Mahmoud, a single man who drives the hotel’s owner, is from Mu’adamiya, a suburb next to Daraya. He left five months ago when the armed groups took control. “We were surrounded on all sides. There was no water, no electricity. My house has lost its doors and windows from explosions but it has not been looted. I lived with my mother and brothers; all are safe.” He shifts between brothers who have found flats elsewhere.

A 15-minute drive from the hotel, depending on traffic through checkpoints, in the leafy diplomatic suburb of Abu Rammaneh, is a small shop selling hand-made chocolates. It belongs to Anas al-Jazayri and his wife Nicole Wouters, from Holland, who met in a cafe in Amsterdam.

“First, what would you like to have? Coffee? Tea?” asks Anas, a broad smile on his freckled face. Nicole is sitting behind a polished desk, hands resting on top. “Our factory outside of town was destroyed and we lost everything we had. Most foreigners left. All the embassies are gone. So we have few customers. We had people coming all the time and a good social life.”

Nevertheless, she says, ‘we are blessed. We open our shop every day. We have a chocolate lab, here in the back.” She asks the assistant to bring a selection. A small, dark piece with a pointed top is rich and smooth. Damascus is famous for its chocolates.

They have no problem obtaining raw materials from abroad but costs are rising because the value of the Syrian pound has fallen 100 per cent in eight months.

She came here 17 years ago with a dream. “I want to open a cafe and chocolate shop and eventually a small hotel.”

They live in the posh – so far whole – suburb of Dummar to the northwest. “We get up in the morning after a night’s bombing and send our two boys to summer camp. A friend was kidnapped. It’s a weird situation. I didn’t know war. We had to adjust to the situation. We had no choice.”