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.