Syria marks ‘evacuation day’ to the beat of mortars and the march of security forces
Half-observed holiday is day of complications and contradictions
Members of the Druze community on horseback hold a Syrian flag during a rally yesterday marking Syria’s independence day in the Druze village of Majdal Shams on the Golan Heights. Photograph: Reuters/Finbarr O’Reilly
To mark the anniversary of “evacuation day”, huge flags of the ruling Baath Party and the Syrian state hang from the roof of Hijaz railway station, white in the morning sun.
There are few cars in the street. Government servants are sleeping late, shopkeepers are breakfasting ahead of a day’s trading on this curious half-observed holiday. Many Damascenes have fled the city for the coast: the road is safe and clear of insurgents.
The stately stone station with stained-glass windows was constructed in 1908 by Ottoman Sultan Abdel Hamid with subscriptions raised by the citizens of Syria. The station belongs to them. It is a national symbol of independence from the Ottomans, the French, and the British who eased the French out of Syria in 1946. TE Lawrence saw its importance and wanted to blow it up.
A second-hand-book seller is arranging his tattered wares on a fence across from Damascus university. A beggar woman is sitting on the pavement talking on her mobile phone. Cars are jammed on the President’s Bridge high above Shukri Quwatly Avenue, named after the first president of independent Syria. Vendors offering T-shirts, bracelets, cosmetics and wrist bands in the colours of the Syrian flag are already in place.
Blast of artillery shells
Magnolias and jasmine are in bloom in the park beside the Four Seasons hotel where families are sitting, enjoying a bit of peace after a night noisy with the blast of artillery shells and the occasional sharp report of a mortar being fired.
April 17th is a day of complications and contradictions. The French colonial regime proposed the 18th, but in 1946, as now, the date fell on Good Friday so the Syrian nationalists decided it should be a day earlier to accommodate Christians.
The holiday commemorates the departure of the last colonial soldier from Damascus. He was an Indian from a British regiment rather than a French trooper serving the sour mandatory power, which had wanted a dependent rather than an independent Syria. But that is a long story.
Syrians honour the day but do not celebrate it with marching bands and mass rallies – except in the Israeli-occupied Golan. At al-Feyha stadium where there is supposed to be an event at noon, there are only a few policemen blocking the road and a checkpoint with cars backed up waiting for soldiers to examine engines and boots. The event, publicised by mobile text message and calls to a select few, seems to have been moved to avoid the daily dose of mortars now plaguing the capital.
The taxi driver taking me back to the diplomatic quarter plays patriotic music on the radio of his creaking car and picks up a few extra customers on the way to Omayyad Square, where fountains spout water at the high blue sky. The cool Damascus spring has become summer: it is 28 degrees.
Security is the day’s watchword. While Damascenes feel safer, more secure than they did when last I was here in November, the government does not want to chance lives to the random mortar brigade. Its insurgent members do not seem to understand that their mortars, which kill and maim on an almost daily basis, no longer terrorise citizens of this city.
Khaled Erksoussi, operations chief of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, says: “We tried for weeks last year to tell the opposition that they gain nothing by firing mortars: it is haram [forbidden] to shoot on Damascus, haram to hurt civilians. Let one of their shaikhs [clerics] say this is haram . But they argue it is legitimate to fire on the people of Damascus because they did not rise up [against the government].”
Khaled says there is a joke circulating that “mortar coverage is better than mobile phone coverage”. One landed on Wednesday not far from the office of the Irish honorary consul.
As we sip lemonade in her cool sittingroom, Marya Jabbour gets her afternoon “bomb call” from a friend with the news. “A lady killed in Jaramana while she was at home.”
Despite the mortars, Marya’s husband, George, an academic and former deputy, says he thinks the situation is better. “But,” he adds, “how long will they permit it to be better?”
The US “speaks a double language,” he says. “It says it wants peace but supplies arms [to the insurgents]. It is happy with Syria killing the terrorists [who come from outside Syria] and encourages the terrorists to come to Syria to be killed. We suffer.”
The situation is better because the insurgents have been pushed back from the edges of Damascus. Petrol is plentiful, although the price has risen. The shops are full of consumer goods for people with money. The currency fell in value a couple of days ago – from 165 liras to the dollar to 180 – perhaps due to speculation by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. But the lira has stabilised again.
Economist Nabil Sukkar argues that the economic situation is deteriorating daily but life goes on. No one knows where funds will be found for reconstruction.
Cafes are filled with people smoking water pipes and drinking Turkish coffee. But waiters do not like customers to order “Turkish” coffee. The Syrians see the Turks as enemies along with the French and, to a lesser extent, the British.
Car engines are roaring and horns are honking in the streets around Hijaz station. Shops remain open late into the night.
The city relaxes, breathes in pollution and dust, shrugs off mortars and the howl of artillery shells. From multiple minarets uncoordinated calls to prayer echo across the city: “Come to pray, come to pray.”