The siege of Damascus: Everyday life in Syria’s savage war
I went to Syria under the auspices of the Assad government’s Ministry of Information, accompanied much of the time by a government minder. I had no other means of going to government-held territory. I was unable to cross the lines into other areas, and witness the devastation there caused by the government, and hear responses from its victims. I accept that my report is therefore selective, but it is authentic and I believe that the people I met deserve to have their stories told.
It could have been a society wedding in London, Milan or Paris. Instead, the packed event took place in the heart of Damascus’ Christian quarter. The men wore formal suits, the women elegant dresses. As the solemn ceremony led into a cheerful after party at a hotel in the centre of town, it seemed that the brutal civil war ravaging the country did not exist.
Yet everybody I talked to had suffered misfortune or disaster. Some had been kidnapped. Many had lost their businesses. Others had received death threats. They were all resigned to the possibility, in some cases the likelihood, of sudden death.
Without exception, those I spoke to had suffered the loss of friends and relatives in the conflict. The groom had already moved to Germany. He told me he hoped his new wife would join him. Some guests had already left Syria and had returned for the wedding. Almost everyone I spoke to was thinking of emigration.
A 22-year-old medical student told me how her life had changed after almost five years of war:
“I used to walk down the street and know half the people I saw. The people round today are not the ones I used to see. Most of my friends have emigrated. Outsiders have come in. It’s like Damascus is my home, but also not my home.”
The young woman explained how refugees from the rest of Syria had changed her Damascus medical school: “Before there were two students in a room. Now there are six, seven or even eight girls in a tiny room.”
One of the ushers said his family used to be rich but that their warehouses in Aleppo had been destroyed.
The road to the family farm located 70km away to the northwest is often attacked by rebels, leaving him stranded in Damascus, he said.
He has also been held up at gunpoint, beaten up and robbed just a month ago. He told me that four of his close friends and family had been killed in the previous year: one was a soldier killed in action; mortars had struck others. I asked him if he had thought of leaving.
“No. Syria is a lovely country. I have had offers to work abroad, but I won’t go. This is my hometown. It’s called Damascus.”
Damascus is under siege. There are only three completely safe routes that lead out of the city, one a heavily guarded road that heads towards Beirut and the other south, toward the airport (there are regular flights to Gulf countries and Russia, though not Western states). The main road to Homs in the north was cut off when I made the journey due to rebel action, but we quickly found an alternative, albeit circuitous route.
Let’s briefly try a mental experiment and imagine Damascus is London.
The central area stretching from Hammersmith and Whitechapel and up to St. John’s Wood and Islington is secure enough (barring the thud of incoming mortars every day).
Londoners can safely head out west along the M4 to Heathrow Airport and beyond, so long as they are ready to tolerate long delays at checkpoints. The M1 heading north is also safe, though the motorway can be cut off suddenly by rebel attack.
All of Croydon is in the hands of armed groups, some allied to al-Qaeda, while Brixton has been reduced to rubble. Only a few desperate refugees, scavenging among the ruins, live there now.
A ferocious battle is underway for control of the ruined streets and squares of Clapham, from where rebel fighters relentlessly dispatch mortars towards Whitehall, Westminster and Mayfair. The wealthy hedge-fund managers and corporate financiers who populate these areas have long since left.
Meanwhile gunmen from the Islamic State group - many of them foreign - terrorise the residents of Richmond and Wimbledon. In such areas, citizen militias have been formed to fight the armed groups who (according to government loyalists) are funded and supplied by neighbouring states.
Now back to Damascus: The front line between rebels and government forces runs in a curve around most of the city. Sometimes a single street marks it, elsewhere a stretch of wasteland.
Walk down one street where all the appearance of life seem to be going on (shops, cars, cafes), then turn off and it becomes a parallel world of sandbags, look-out posts, armed men and bunkers.
I drove down with members of the National Defence Force (NDF) - local militias that have sprung up spontaneously to defend local communities - to the industrial suburb of al-Qadam in southwest Damascus.
Within a minute of turning off a busy main road, we were ducking low to avoid incoming fire from IS sniper positions just 270 metres away at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp (government forces laid brutal siege to it before much of it fell under IS control) on the other side of a children’s park.
The militiamen told me that they came under incessant attack from IS, and claimed to have killed two of their fighters the previous day.
Life on the front line
In an adjacent street, perhaps 90 metres behind the nearest frontline position, a group of local women were sipping herbal tea in the shade of a fig tree.
The oldest woman, Amali, told me how two days ago her water tank had been struck by a sniper’s bullet, destroying her water supply and causing a flood.
“I fixed it and I am not scared,” she said. “I have lived here for 40 years and I won’t leave.”
“We have a lot of our people killed. My cousin. My nephew. My cousin’s son. They cut his neck from artery to artery. We will not leave our country like the Palestinian people. We will stay here.”
She took me into her house to show me the damage. The outside walls were pockmarked with bullets. Neither Amali, nor her neighbours, can ever climb the stairs to the second floor of their houses for fear of being shot.
Almost every Damascene is aware that they could be hit at any moment. A young woman student told me: “It’s a matter of luck. I feel that I am gambling with my life.”
I asked an old man in a street in north Damascus for directions. He told me: “I go out of my house and I do not know whether I come back. We do not know what will happen tomorrow, next month, next year or in ten years’ time.”
A man nearby added: “Now the normal thing in Syria is death. The abnormal thing is that you should live.”
It has been 18 months since I was last in Damascus. Life in the city has become tougher and more dangerous. People are weary of the conflict, the shortages, and the danger. They see no end to the fighting. They feel isolated and abandoned by the world.
When I arrived in the city three weeks ago I wondered where to stay. Fellow journalists suggested the Four Seasons in the centre of the city, much used by the United Nations and international media.
However, it is part of what some call the “green zone”, meaning that it is insulated from the realities of the life around. Just as off-putting, it charges $500 a night, far beyond my means.
I found a hotel in the old walled city. Several centuries old, with a beautiful interior courtyard for which Damascus is famous, the manager told me that before the crisis, Dar al-Yasmin was always full of tourists.
After five years of conflict, the rooms were mainly closed up and without food or drink, and a sputtering tap rather than running water. For more than half of the time, there was no electricity and most nights I went to bed by the light of my mobile phone.
When I left the hotel in the evening there was no lighting in the narrow, cobbled alleyways. People stumbled along by the light of torches. The old city suddenly felt very mediaeval indeed.
By staying there, I was able to share the life of ordinary Damascenes. Besides the electricity and water shortages, the most obvious problem was the mortars.
During many of the interviews I carried out, they made a background thud every few minutes, in most cases reassuringly far away, just occasionally exploding with a thunderous bang nearby.
Damascenes ignore them, not even looking up when they land. Nowhere is exempt from the mortars (though very few reach the heart of the city). They fall on Sunni Muslim, as well as Christian or Alawite areas.
For example, when I visited the Grand Ummayad Mosque, in the heart of the Old City, I found that it had been struck several times, most recently about three months ago when a mortar landed in the courtyard near the entrance, killing two workmen.
The mortars come without warning and have a tendency to arrive in sequence - I was advised that if one lands nearby it is best to take cover because another may be on the way. Their intention is to destroy morale and force people out of Damascus.
The day I arrived mortars killed three students and injured 25 others just after they had taken their end of year exams at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering.
I went to visit one of the survivors, a 20-year-old engineering student, at the hospital. He was recovering from severe injuries to his abdomen and thorax.
“I didn’t have a gun in my hand,” he said. “We were not fighting anyone. We are at university.”
He expressed determination in wanting to “go back to my faculty with my paper and pen. I want to prove that I am not afraid and can continue normal life”.
Talks have started between pro-government militias and the rebels
There are many rebel groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. In Damascus, they can be divided into two broad categories: those which want to replace the Assad government while retaining the existing Syrian state, and those which want to replace Assad with some version of a theocracy.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), set up in the early months of the war, was by far the most important example of the first category. Partly comprised of army officers who had defected, it received backing from the West.
Over the course of the war, the FSA has met with a series of numbing setbacks. It has steadily lost ground to jihadist movements set on obliterating the modern, constitutional conception of Syria as a secular country.
In Damascus, IS has begun to make progress over the past 12 months, bringing a fresh dimension of undiluted horror to the war. Pro-government militiamen told me that, unlike the jihadists of al-Nusra or Jaysh al-Islam, there can be no negotiation with IS.
The rise of IS, however, has brought a dramatic reconciliation between rebel and government factions. A contact in the National Defence Force took me to a military outpost in west Damascus in order to meet one of the leaders of the local Free Syrian Army battalion.
The two men explained to me that after three years of fighting they had started to negotiate. This grizzled FSA fighter - I will call him Abdullah - told me how he had joined up with the opposition inside his native al-Qadam (an outer district of Damascus) at the start of the war along with other members of his tribe who were outraged by the brutal reaction of the security state at the start of rebellion.
Abdullah and his friends had spent three years fighting a battle against government forces that had left al-Qadam, which neighbours Yarmouk, ruined. Locals say that the population of 110,000 has been reduced to just 6,000.
In recent months, however, he said that many FSA fighters had switched to fight alongside government forces.
“We saw that the men we were fighting were Syrians. There were no Hezbollah. In our last battle there was a lot of blood. Many dead. After the end of the battle we exchanged bodies. Then talks started.”
At first, these were fraught with suspicion. In the first meeting some rebel leaders wore suicide vests, primed to explode if they were killed in order to head off the danger of ambush. I was told they contained a special sensor causing it to explode if breathing stops.
The FSA leader said that when IS arrived in the district a few months ago “we worked out that the real enemy is IS”.
He added that he had gone to see an IS leader, an Iraqi called Abu Salem, to ask him: “Why do you want to kill us? We are Muslim. We are people like you. Why don’t you just attack the government directly?”
Abu Salem replied: “What do you do if you have a snake inside your house and outside the house. Which do you kill first? The inside snake.”
The situation was very dangerous and unstable. The day I met the FSA fighter, he told me that IS had just laid down an ultimatum which “demanded that the people of al-Qadam should join with them. If we refused, then they will fight us and announce al-Qadam as a state for IS.”
The FSA turned the offer down. Then came bad news. A group of FSA fighters had defected after IS had “bought a street” in al-Qadam, securing loyalty with money and weapons.
This was not so surprising. IS has much better pay. Free Syrian Army fighters told me that IS fighters get paid 80,000 Syrian lira ($250) a month whereas they were only paid 5,000 lira (about $20).
The FSA men told me that they used to get much better money from Qatari and Turkish sources, but this source of funds was cut off seven months ago when they started to cooperate with pro-government forces.
Plummeting Syrian pound causes cost of living crisis
Living standards have collapsed since the start of the conflict, even for those in work. A doctor’s salary is approximately $150 a month. Five years ago, at an exchange rate of 50 lira to the dollar, that was the equivalent to $600 - enough to live in middle class comfort.
Since then, the Syrian pound has slid to less than 20 percent of the value it held five years ago, and it continues to fall fast and relentlessly. When I arrived at the Masnaa border crossing from Beirut on 2 September, I exchanged my dollars at 300 lira each. But by the time I left the country two weeks later, the exchange rate had dropped by more than 10 percent to 340 lira per dollar.
If it continues to fall at the current rate for another 12 months, the Syrian lira will be worth 1,300 to the dollar, meaning that a doctor’s salary will be worth only $25 a month. It is hard to see how ordinary Damascenes can survive at all in such circumstances.
This makes life unbearably difficult for many because prices have surged ahead. Bottles of water (a necessity during Syria’s scorching summers) have risen from about 15 lira to around 150 lira, a kilogram of tomatoes used to cost 15 lira but exceeds 200 lira. Student notebooks, formerly 100 lira, now cost 500.
The most expensive item by far is accommodation. Thanks to the surge of displaced people into Damascus, the rent of a two bedroom flat is now about 70,000 lira a month, which is more than twice the salary of an average state employee. As one Syrian said to me: “[In order] to move to Damascus [one] needs two salaries just to pay for somewhere to live.”
The Assad government has frozen prices on basic commodities including petrol, gas, rice and sugar, all of which are supplied on the presentation of an official card. But this system of rationing inevitably leads to shortages.
Long queues, stretching back for hundreds of metres, now form outside petrol stations and have become a major source of traffic blockage, along with ubiquitous checkpoints.
It is no wonder that so many Syrians turn their thoughts to leaving the country. Samir, a dentist, told me that he had got engaged at the beginning of the war.
“My fiance and I threw a party. A whole load of people at our engagement party had left Syria by the time of the wedding. We had to make a new set of friends. Now most of the people at our wedding have left too. Every day you hear about someone else leaving.”
I suggested to him that Syrians who left during the war could be seen as unpatriotic, pointing out that some British still consider those people (for instance the poet WH Auden and the novelist Christopher Isherwood) who fled to the United States during the 1940 blitz as cowards.
He replied: “Some call emigrants traitors. On the other hand people worry about the safety of their children.”
“Yesterday my neighbour who works in a bank said to me that he was thinking of leaving and asked for my view. I said to him that it was none of my business. You have to decide yourself.”
My friend said that he wanted to remain in Syria. But he added: “By staying I am gambling with my life, my wife’s life and the life of my children if we have them. But the fear that someone might get hurt while taking this gamble is devastating. That is the argument that my wife is putting to me.”
Samir said he too might leave one day. “I am not saying that one day I will not leave. Maybe I will have to. I think the worst is what we are going through now, the mortars, the living conditions.”
Commute from terror
Before the war, tourism was a staple of the national economy. However, earlier patterns of travel have re-emerged. People come on pilgrimage to Damascus. Christians stay in Bab Tuma in the Old City before travelling onwards to the ancient centres of Maaloula (some 40km north of the capital) and Saidnaya (some 20km north). When I went to the Great Ummayad Mosque I came across a party of black-robed Shia ladies from Basra, who had come to worship Hussein the martyr.
In the courtyard, I fell into conversation with an old man who had made an especially harrowing pilgrimage. He had arrived in Damascus the previous day from Raqqa, IS’s self-proclaimed headquarters.
He told me about a terrifying journey by bus (tickets cost 2,500 lira each) which involved 23 checkpoints before reaching Syrian government territory. The man, a civil servant, told me he had come to pray for a sick relative, and planned to return the following day.
I asked why he didn’t stay in Damascus. The man told me that that his home was in Raqqa and that IS would seize his house if he left it unattended for long.
He told me about how Raqqa fell to the militants: “There were the Free Syrian Army there, IS and all sorts of other forces. IS were strongest. They told us that you are welcome to join us. Otherwise you will be killed."
“We were terrified that day from the executions and murders. First of all they killed the soldiers. Then they killed civilians. They chopped off heads and put them beside the roads and beside the main square. They execute women as well as men. If they know a woman has a son in the army, they will kill her.”
He said that IS fighters in Raqqa were foreigners.
“There are Egyptians, Tunisians, Afghans, Koreans, Malaysian, natives of Azerbaijan, Chinese. The majority are from Saudi Arabia.” He said that he only seen “one or two” British fighters.
These IS fighters, he said, exert a reign of terror. Public TV in every square churns out IS’s notorious videos displaying deaths and beheadings. The local school, he said, had been turned into a lodging house for fighters.
Preachers at the Friday mosque change every Friday, he said. For the most part, they were Saudi or Egyptian. He told me about imams carrying Kalashnikovs and wearing a loaded suicide belt as they preached.
“All the time,” he said. “They talk about the apocalypse and how this is the last of times. They say that they are soldiers of God and that they are fighting the war at the end of time. They insist that it is written in the Quran that God has sent them with their black flags.”
This belief that the world has entered the end times as predicted in ancient prophecy is very widely held, and not just among Muslims. Many Christians, I was told, believe this too. One of the signs of the end of the world is a sighting of white horses, and there are said to have been numerous of these. The fall of Damascus itself would be regarded as another infallible sign that the final days are imminent.
Protecting Syria’s education system
Despite everything, life goes on. Children went back to school for the autumn term while I was there - a normal and welcoming sight. I travelled to the suburb of Eastern Ghouta, the traumatised district in southeastern Damascus where hundreds died after chemical weapons fell on a rebel area in 2013, nearly provoking Britain and the West to make bombing raids against the Assad government.
The manager of the educational authority was a powerfully built man who described to me in detail the difficulties of running a school system in an area that has experienced so much killing and destruction.
Average class sizes had more than doubled from around 35 before the crisis to 75 today. So great is the weight of numbers that in some schools the day is divided into two shifts.
This was partly because of pressure for space from displaced children, and partly because of destruction. Some schools have been turned into accommodation centres for refugees.
Six of his schools had been destroyed in the fighting, and some 30 out of 450 teachers had been killed.
“Sometimes they are targeted by armed groups and sometimes they are kidnapped from work,” he said.
Teachers, like doctors and government officials, are regarded as authority figures and therefore fair game for rebels.
To my astonishment, he informed me that his educational authority also manages schools in rebel areas.
“We run 61 schools for all grades, with 19,000 students.”
This creates a delicate and dangerous issue with the school syllabus. Syrian national education is almost identical to the European system. Education is free and compulsory, from ages 6-15. The schools are mixed and the subject taught are liberal and secular: maths, sciences, geography, history, languages (French, English, and Arabic).
Religious studies embrace Christianity as well as Islam, and concentrate on propounding a message of religious toleration.
So what happens in rebel held schools, given that much of East Ghouta is now under the control of Islamist groups?
The education authority chief said “the government sends all the books, all the equipment and all the education facilities to schools in rebel areas. The teachers come into Damascus monthly to collect their salaries.”
He added that the “armed groups try to add to the curriculum materials about Sharia law and Wahhabism, while getting rid of anything which promotes Syrian nationalism.”
However, he said that teachers try to resist this pressure, bolstered by supportive parents.
“Most of the teachers,” he told me, “live there with their families, which gives them strength.”
Standing up to armed men in these desperate circumstances can only require superhuman reserves of moral determination and courage. The head mistress of one school in East Ghouta was one of the bravest and admirable women I have ever met.
Veiled and wearing a long black dress, she told me of her personal battle to prevent al-Nusra imposing its monochrome vision of education on her school.
“They changed the curriculum, separated boys from girls, ended sports for girls, and cancelled art lessons. They cancelled physics teaching because they said its doctrine that energy is eternal is false. They said only God lasts forever.”
“They wanted us to stop teaching girls science and mathematics, to emphasise the importance of jihad, and to teach the girls to encourage their husbands towards jihad.”
She refused to cooperate. Al-Nusra seized her and took her to prison. She was subjected to interrogation by a Tunisian (nick-named al-Tunisie) with a long, white beard who told her he was from the “repentance council”.
First, he accused her of being a spy. Then he offered her money to bring in the Wahhabi school syllabus that al-Nusra demanded. He also offered her cash to smuggle medical and other goods between government and rebel areas.
When she refused all these inducements, al-Tunisie threatened to put her in front of a sharia court where she would, he said, be awarded 100 lashes.
These conversations took place in her prison cell. At length, she told me: “I decided to face him down. I decided to use his religion against him.”
“I asked him ‘why are you sitting here with me alone? I am a woman and you are a man. It is forbidden that you should look at me without a veil.’”
She won the argument and was allowed to go back to her school (though she was not trusted and was followed everywhere she went).
Then she secured a remarkable coup and arranged for her schoolchildren to cross the fire line between government and rebel forces in order take their high school exams.
This plan was strongly supported by the students’ parents, and it worked well. But after that she felt more than ever a marked woman. She felt obliged to flee with her two children, Fadi and Hadi.
After a series of adventures, when they lived in secret with a family of strangers in a safe house, they managed to cross the rebel lines and return to government-held territory, where she returned to teaching.
But her inspiring and heroic story has a tragic sequel. A few weeks after their escape, she was supervising an exam when a mortar landed in the garden outside where her two sons were playing.
Twelve-year-old Fadi was killed outright while her younger son Hadi was injured and has yet to overcome the psychological trauma.
Many teachers in East Ghouta have gone through similar horrifying and intense experiences.
The principal of one school told me how rebels took over her neighbourhood 12 months ago.
The rebels knocked on the door of her family home, where she was asleep with her husband and four children, at 4am.
The rebels targeted government workers and minority groups.
“My neighbourhood was mostly Sunni,” she said. “But they started to ask who were Christian or Alawite. The Sunni women covered the Alawite women and refused to say who was from a minority.”
The rebels were merciless: “They killed people in front of our eyes. My brother-in-law was an officer in the army. They shot him in the back and the shoulder. His wife started crying: ‘Please help him. He will die.’”
“They refused. They said ‘let him die slowly’ and called him a ‘dead animal.’”
Then her cousin, a supervisor in a furniture shop, was heard telling his daughter to call for army assistance. “They shot him. He fell down dead in front of his daughters.”
Amid all the confusion, her family managed to escape.
Another teacher, Ahmed, was disturbed along with his wife, his 18-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter two hours later on the same morning.
They were ordered to go and stand in the street, where residents were divided into groups. Young men were informed they would be drafted to fight as jihadi fighters.
Anyone with a picture of President Assad was arrested on grounds of pro-government views. The rebels repeatedly asked Ahmed and others: “What is your sect?” Ahmed, like most of the inhabitants of East Ghoutta, is Sunni.
In this desperate moment, shooting started. He told me: “My wife and daughter were hit. My daughter received a bullet in the thigh, and my wife was hit in the neck. She died in front of me.”
In his grief, Ahmed started shouting at the rebels. “I have a fight with them,” he told me.
Amid the ensuing chaos he left his son grieving over his dead mother while he took his badly injured daughter to search for urgent medical help.
Thanks to amazing luck, they found a medical centre that carried out an emergency operation. A nearby family then took pity on them, and at great risk allowed them to hide in their house.
The following day they discretely abandoned their temporary refuge, walked up to a government checkpoint, which allowed them through to safety. Later, the family was reunited when Ahmed met his son again. The young man had secured a decent burial for his mother, and also escaped.
They now live as displaced people. Ahmed told me: “I don’t care about my life now. I care about my children, not about my own life.”
Others live in yet greater desperation. Before I left East Ghoutta, I asked to visit al-Dukhaniah school, a once flourishing establishment that had been educating 1,200 students until fighting forced the school to close in July last year.
The school had now become a base for rebel forces. “The Islam army was here,” could be read on the school wall.
Everything had been destroyed, but I picked up a book of religious instruction from the rubble.
It asked: “Can you name five of the beautiful things that God has created for us?”
A schoolchild had written: “Rivers, mountains, seas, pearls, stars.”
As I absorbed the incongruity of all this I realised I was being observed by a man and his young son.
He told me that his name was Mahmood, that he lived locally and that his wife was dead, shot in the back during last year’s fighting by a sniper.
Mahmood and his three sons had fled the fighting after she was killed, and lived in a park in central Damascus for several weeks before finding more secure accommodation in a government camp.
Recently they had come back to their old home, and now made a living foraging for old pieces of plastic and iron and selling them for scrap.
I asked him to take me to his home. We picked our way through the destruction (so thorough in places that there was total silence, not even birdsong) until after about ten minutes we came to his little house.
There was no electricity or water. The family group lived in one bedroom and one smaller room doubled as a kitchen and bathroom.
The bedroom was incredibly hot and humid and lit by a single candle, by the light of which Mahmood’s sister was attempting to read the Quran to her two small children.
I realised that nine people lived in this damp and fetid house - Mahmood and three sons, his sister and her two children, a nephew and Mahmood’s new wife.
The children did not go to school because the family did not have the means to buy them uniforms, books and satchels.
A Dostoyevsky novel
Interviewing the men and women who have gone through tragedy on this epic scale is hard to bear. Many conversations were as naked and heartbreaking as reading a Dostoyevsky novel.
People have suffered more than anyone should ever be asked to suffer. They have displayed physical and moral courage at which an outsider can only marvel. They have suffered tragedies on a scale beyond ordinary comprehension.
I set aside a morning for myself the day I left Damascus, and walked down Straight Street and towards Bab Sharqi, the eastern gate of the Old City.
I turned left, walked up a cobbled street, and at length found the house of St Ananias, the first Bishop of Damascus who answered God’s instruction to heal St Paul after he was struck blind.
I bought a ticket, went down to the ancient chapel and prayed for Syria. I prayed for the refugees. I prayed for the dead. I prayed for al-Ghouta and al-Qaddam. I prayed for the victims of the rebels and for the victims of the government. I prayed for truth. I prayed for all the brave people I had met. I prayed for no more horror. I prayed for an explanation. I prayed for hope.
I was alone in the chapel except for one couple that must have suffered some unbearable loss - the woman was sobbing. They stayed for a short while after placing a candle not far from the altar. Following their example I lit one too. Then I went back down on my knees, and I prayed and I prayed and I prayed.
Photo Credit: Mortars pound Damascus in 2014 (AFP)