Damascus resident Mohammed was kept awake by explosions and exchanges of gunfire between soldiers and rebels on the first night after a deadly bomb attack on top officials shattered the capital’s relative tranquility.
“There were a lot of fireworks,” he said, less than a day after an explosion killed three of Syria’s top military leaders and dealt President Bashar al-Assad’s government its biggest blow since the uprising began in March last year. Mohammed, who declined to give his surname because of possible reprisals, said a drive around the city yesterday revealed plumes of smoke, long lines at food stores and an army bus riddled with bullets. “These are sights we’re not used to seeing,” he said.
The July 18 bomb at a meeting of security officials left Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, and Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah among the dead. It has added to a sense among Damascenes that the city is no longer exempt from the worst of the violence, in a conflict that has seen entire neighborhoods of cities such as Homs and Hama leveled.
For the past five days, government troops have clashed in the capital with lightly armed fighters of the Free Syrian Army. Hours after the bombing, security forces used helicopters and heavy artillery to pound areas in Damascus, in what the opposition described as retaliation.
The Local Coordination Committees, an anti-Assad group, said at least 130 people were killed when a funeral procession was shelled in the Sayyeda Zainab district on the outskirts of the capital late on July 18.
As news of the explosion came out, Mohammed said the streets of Damascus emptied as people hurried home fearing retaliatory attacks. On the eve of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, they’re usually bustling with shoppers stocking up on delicacies, such as nuts and sweets, for fast-breaking evening meals often shared with friends and relatives.
This year, Syrians are stocking up on food for a different reason, because they are “nervous and worried about the future,” said Julie, a pharmacist.
Many Syrians are hoarding staples such as rice, sugar and pasta, and foods that do not require much cooking because there is a cooking-gas shortage, she said in a phone interview from her house on the edge of the city. Some Damascenes are preparing shelters in storage depots, sports clubs or any underground structure they can find, she said.
“We don’t know where we’re headed,” said another resident of the capital, a woman who declined to be named for fear of her safety. She said by phone yesterday that she was determined to lead as close to a normal life as possible, and was on her way to the hairdresser and then to the supermarket.
Only about one or two in every 10 stores were open yesterday, said Mohammed. He said he passed by a station where shared taxis set off for Beirut, and saw Damascenes arguing over the few seats available.
The violence in Damascus is set to intensify, said Torbjorn Soltvedt, senior analyst at U.K.-based risk analysis company Maplecroft.
“A swift military victory for the rebels is unlikely,” he said in an e-mail. “The regime will almost certainly concentrate its forces in the capital and heavier fighting is likely to ensue.”
Stepped-up security measures, such as checkpoints outside some Damascus neighborhoods to catch members of the Free Syrian Army, are aimed at “preventing terror acts and protecting the Syrian people,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state news agency Sana yesterday.
Veneer of Normality
Until recently life in Damascus had a veneer of normality, with restaurants crowded at weekends, families taking leisurely walks in the evenings, and traffic jams at rush hour.
The government has sought to reinforce that sense of business as usual. Another report on Sana yesterday said that the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, together with the Aga Khan Network for Cultural Services, was launching a project to restore the historic city-center of Damascus.
It’s becoming harder to reassure people in the capital who can see and hear the evidence of encroaching war.
“People in Damascus cannot believe this is actually happening in their city,” said Julie, the pharmacist. “We had been spared this kind of violence. Until now.”
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