Souqs filled with shoppers in house of relative peace

In Damascus, Homs, Hama, and coastal cities, Syrians live as normally as they can

Syrians  outside the Omayyad Mosque in central Damascus. In many areas of Syria life continues as usual.  Photograph:  Joseph Eid/AFP

Syrians outside the Omayyad Mosque in central Damascus. In many areas of Syria life continues as usual. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP

 

Syria is two lands linked by bombs: the house of relative peace and the house of war. In Damascus, Homs, Hama, and the coastal cities, Syrians live normally as well as they can.

After 5½ years, bombs and shells from these government-held areas continue to fall on insurgent-controlled zones in Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir al-Zor, while the same is true in reverse: insurgent shells hit government-controlled areas, where 70 per cent of Syrians live. This is a week of two extra public holidays – the lunar new year and the anniversary of the 1973 war waged by Syria and Egypt against Israel – marked by Damascenes in cafes and parks and trips to the Mediterranean shore for sun, sand and swimming. The weather is perfect: cool mornings and warm afternoons after a blistering hot summer. The souqs of Damascus are thronged with shoppers weighed down with heavy bags of food, and the pavements with pedestrians avoiding traffic jamming the streets. Cars pause at checkpoints where bored soldiers spring open boots to look for bombs, slam the closed and tap to signal the driver to move on.

Bombardments

Al-Qaeda types are still holding out in two towns to the west, Qudsayr and al-Hami. They infiltrated the latter in three pick-up trucks hidden under sacks of garlic. Older residents are trying to negotiate the withdrawal of the fighters with the government, while families who have fled from these towns take shelter in my small hotel at the heart of Damascus outside the walls of the Old City.

The 165km drive from Damascus to Homs takes 2½ hours along the largely empty, well surfaced highway. Leaving the capital we are stalled by heavy lines of traffic, both entering and leaving the city along a bypass: snipers fire on cars on the main highway which passes an eastern dissident suburb.

There are three light checkpoints on the route where a smiling soldier nods over my Cypriot press pass and waves us on, greeting me with “Welcome to Sy- ria”.

Syria is just about the only country in this region where journalists are welcome at this time of widespread troubles. Other checkpoints have been abandoned, leaving only speed bumps across the road, dubbed “sleeping soldiers” by Syrians.

Winter rains

The entrance to Homs is heralded by a square where four columns on a pedestal still harbour a sniper’s nest of bright painted metal barrels. Although Syria’s third largest city has been brutally afflicted by the war, Homs now belongs to the area of relative peace.

Traffic fills the broad streets, shops are open, children are in school. We turn away from the car-choked checkpoint to the ravaged Old City and turn down an alleyway to the ancient souq under reconstruction by the UN Development Programme for a tour of rubble-cleared streets and a glass of tea in the courtyard of a battered Ottoman-era inn.

Under a deal with Damascus, by mid-October 500 insurgents who have opted for relocation are set to depart for the north and 1,000 fighters who seek to stay will lay down their weapons under an amnesty, permitting the entry of police, army and civil servants, and returning 45,000 residents to relative peace.

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