Truffles and traffic jams: Damascus grinds on after eight years of war
Damascenes are starting to feel safer but daily life is filled with trials and tribulations
Syrians queue to fill their car with petrol in Damascus. Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP
Damascenes no longer fear death or injury from insurgent mortar or artillery shells from the suburbs. They sleep at night without being awakened by low-flying aircraft on bombing missions or the thud of outgoing rockets hitting rebel and jihadi targets at the edge of the city.
Damascenes feel safe but they have not been liberated from the latest phase of the eight-year conflict which has devastated their country. Daily life is filled with trials and tribulations. Sanctions imposed by the western powers deny Syrians the essentials of modern existence they expected to return once battles ended. Disillusionment and frustration are widespread.
During a brief encounter at the upmarket Kafrsouseh mall, an old friend sums up the situation perfectly. “We have truffles but no petrol,” he says.
Damascus is much quieter and cleaner without the noisy, polluting generators but businesses and families suffer
Thanks to an unusually wet winter, white truffles – usually an expensive luxury – are plentiful and cheap, but petrol, which was sufficient this time last year, is rationed. Country dwellers who collect truffles in the desert receive little for their efforts, while traffic jams consume scarce petrol in the capital and Syria’s other main cities.
Petrol purchased with smart cards is limited to 20 litres a day, but people who travel between cities and towns can get an additional 20 or 40 litres. Long lines form at petrol pumps, wasting motorists’ time. Smuggled petrol is costly.
A year ago, Damascus, its suburbs and satellite towns had electricity for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Currently it is rationed. In Damascus, power is on for four hours and off for two throughout 24 hours. In surrounding areas it is three hours on and three hours off. Businesses and households make do in off hours with bright, battery-powered lights which are recharged when power returns.
Businesses formerly used generators to provide power during off hours but these days there is no “mazout” – fuel oil – to feed generators formerly occupying sidewalks and courtyards. Damascus is much quieter and cleaner without the noisy, polluting generators but businesses and families suffer. Hospitals, schools, universities, bakeries and other essential services receive available mazout. Black marketeers charge premium prices.
Bottles of cooking gas are rationed. Smart cards are used to purchase a bottle which must last for a fixed period. An importer of bottled gas told The Irish Times that the US is exerting pressure on Iraqi, Jordanian and Lebanese firms to halt shipments to Syria. Householders cook on electric rings while there is power and use gas ranges, which are normal in most Syrian homes, to warm food and make coffee.
Everything is more expensive because the currency has lost a quarter of its value over the past year and shortages of power, petrol and mazout raise prices across the board. Civil servants who earn salaries of $40-200 a month cannot make ends meet. Hard-pressed workers have multiple jobs. Families depend on financial aid from relatives living abroad.
Due to sanctions, essential medicines formerly being produced in Syria are in short supply. Aleppo’s pharmaceutical plants have been destroyed or looted. Surviving firms cannot get raw materials. Spare parts for medical and other machines are banned.
Weekends are for partying, weekdays for work and worry
The Syrian government now rules 70 per cent of the country, and businessmen complain that aggressive tax collectors are stifling trade and discouraging domestic and expatriate investment.
Syria is caught in a catch-22 situation. Without capital there can be no investment; without tax money the government cannot maintain security, fight remaining insurgents, and provide education, medical care and the services people expect.
Despite hardship and exasperation, Damascenes continue to enjoy life. The poor picnic in parks, middle class couples crowd into moderately priced cafes, youngsters flock to discos, and the wealthy splurge on grand weddings at luxury hotels.
In the Old City, elegant 18th and 19th century Ottoman mansions have been restored and transformed into restaurants where birthday and engagement parties are weekend events. Weekends are for partying, weekdays for work and worry.
While some outsiders have predicted Syrians across the country could take to the streets to protest against hardship, people consulted by The Irish Times dismiss this notion. Syrians have suffered grievously since Arab Spring demonstrations morphed into conflict in 2011. They are not prepared to risk fresh bloodletting and devastation.