‘We survived bombs, but could not bear the loss of our water’

The people of Damascus try to find pleasure in the small things as war continues in Syria

Syrians shop for fast-food in the capital Damascus. Photograph:  Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Syrians shop for fast-food in the capital Damascus. Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images


The weekend begins on Thursday with traffic jams. People hurry home in cars.

Pavements fill with students, women with babies in pushchairs, men in suits and loosened ties, boys in jeans holding hands with head-scarfed girls in jeans.

The broad streets are narrowed by cars parked every which way on the pavements.

When darkness descends at about six, the unlit streets empty. Electricity is on for two hours and off for four.

Fresh traffic jams come later when people go out for the evening. Long lines of cars snake from petrol pumps, where fuel is precious.

The only illumination comes from battery-lit shops not yet closed. A man with a torch precedes me down the street, lighting the potholes, the broken bits of pavement.

When he takes a different fork in the road, I switch on a pocket torch, cross the President’s Bridge stretching from bank to bank high above Shukri al-Quwatli boulevard. Multiple calls to prayer issue from mosque minarets and soar over the city.

The flat, metallic thud of explosions remind us war lurks in the suburbs.

In the afternoon there had been the crackle of machine-gun fire for funerals of soldiers or civilians killed in that day’s insurgent attacks, drawing fresh strikes by the air force, breaching the Russian ceasefire.

Narrow alleyway

There are few people on Abu Rummaneh boulevard bisecting the diplomatic quarter where I meet friends at a shop before going out to dinner.

Le Baron, one of the new city’s better restaurants, is in a narrow alleyway behind an unremarkable wooden slab door with no sign proclaiming its presence. The decor is wine cellar rather than traditional Damascene mansions.

In the Old City, many of these elegant 18th- and 19th-century homes have been transformed into beautiful cafes, restaurants, and bijou hotels.

An array of Syrian dishes, lamb kebabs and chops are served.

At the next table, women smoke water pipes while their husbands drink milky glasses of chilled Arak. Red wine and whiskey bottles grace other tables.

Asked how his factory is doing, Issam replies, “I have lots of orders but not enough workmen, electricity and fuel.” Why no workers? “They’re in the army.”

He pays with a thick stack of £1,000 Syrian notes. Before the war 50 Syrian pounds made a dollar, now the rate is 500 to the dollar.

Our car surges into a square packed with people sitting on benches or standing and eating dishes of fruit salad engulfed in whipped cream.

“Abed Abdo is packed from morning to night,” observes Issam. Syrians may be weary of five years of war but they cling to pleasures of peace.

“We have survived bombs, no electricity, no fuel,” says Nasrine, his wife and business partner, “but we could not bear the loss of our water.”

Damascus’s main supply was cut at the end of December and did not resume its normal flow until the end of January, punishing four to five million people.

Fuel oil had, reportedly, been put by al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah al-Sham into the water flowing from Wadi Barada, the chief source of the capital’s water.

The pumping station was bombed, although the culprit is undetermined, a UN source said.

Drilling wells

The Jabhat diverted the flow. It took a battle between the army and insurgents to resume supplies.

Fortunately, Unicef had planned for this contingency by drilling wells which provided the city with one-third of its regular intake.

For Damascenes, weeks without water remain the most traumatic period of the war.

“Hotels rented rooms with water and rooms without water,” Nasrine says.

Cars swirl round the square in front of the handsome Ottoman railway station, which was built a century ago with funds raised from the Syrian people, as Issam turns into the dark street where my small hotel hosts refugees instead of foreign archaeologists.

In the entrance a band of battery lights blazes. They are charged when the power comes on. I take out my torch and climb the dark stairs.

Battery lights illuminate the lobby and the rooms. The electricity switches on at midnight to wake me and remind me to bless the light as well as mains water.

Our showers work only from 7-10pm with water heated by panels on the roof. Fuel is too precious to spend on heating water.

A too-true joke circulates on the internet. “The next generation of Syrians will see in the dark, not feel cold, eat bread or drink water; shun meat and chicken; be able to walk distances and sit in cars and buses for long periods [as at check points], and resist all forms of pressure.”

If they go to the moon, the joke goes, they will survive without space suits and supplies.