Understanding life in Damascus today is difficult. It’s a rare journalist who captures the mood. Janine di Giovanni (who’s reported from the country before) has a new and devastating dispatch in the New York Times:
Rifa was growing frantic. Her husband had called to say that he and her brother were stuck on their way home from work outside the Syrian capital, normally a 25-minute drive. There was fighting in a northern suburb, he said, and traffic was frozen.
Tensions rose as the hours passed. It is never good to be out after dark in Damascus now, especially trapped in a traffic jam, unable to flee. Finally, Rifa’s husband called again. They had escaped and returned to their workplace to pass the night, another concession to their changing world.
War has come to Damascus. Not on the scale of Aleppo or Homs, at least not yet. But the difference from just a few months ago is unmistakable. With sandbagged checkpoints every half-mile and soldiers methodically searching vehicles for weapons, simple movement is becoming impossible.
“Where is Damascus headed? Are we the next Aleppo?” Rifa asked a few days later. “How soon before our city, our markets, are destroyed?”
This is the center of Bashar al-Assad’s power, the stronghold he tried for months to shield from a popular uprising that has inexorably been transformed into a bloody civil war. As his troops battled insurgents all around the country, Mr. Assad was determined that here, at least, he would preserve an air of normalcy, of routine, of certainty that life would go on, as it had before.
Such illusions are no longer possible. The reality of war has crept into daily life, and there is a sense of inevitability. Even supporters of the government talk about what comes next, and rebels speak of tightening the noose around this city, their ultimate goal.
Damascus was once known for its all-night party scene. Now, few people venture out after dark, and kidnappings are rampant. Gasoline is increasingly scarce, and as winter approaches, people are worried about shortages of food and heating oil. Streets are closed at a moment’s notice, traffic diverted, bridges shut down. Even longtime residents and taxi drivers get lost and have to weave in and out of parking lots to avoid barriers and dead-end streets. Shelling and machine-gun fire are so commonplace, children no longer react.
As recently as summer, while war raged in various neighborhoods surrounding the city, Damascus existed in a bubble of denial. War, people seemed to feel, was happening elsewhere — and the residents of Mr. Assad’s stronghold were determined to live their lives as if nothing had changed. There were garden parties and fashion shoots, and the Opera House hosted Italian tenors. There were elegant dinners at embassies — before the ambassadors fled, that is.
But as summer faded, the strangulation of Damascus began. More checkpoints appeared. The shabiha — Arabic for ghosts — progovernment paramilitary forces who are often held responsible for the most violent crimes, were defiantly visible in foreign hotels.
Now, suicide bombings are more frequent, and the rebels of the Free Syrian Army say they are slowly establishing control of the suburbs that ring the city, with the aim of slowly strangling the government. Some families say they are taking their children out of school and teaching them at home, because the drive to school is too dangerous.
Discussions among friends are no longer “of the real world,” as one writer put it. Talk turns more naturally to the fate of the homeless in the city’s parks, or the traumatization of the children.
“People,” one woman said, “talk of death.”
For many Damascenes, what is most difficult is coming to terms with the harsh reality of a civil war, of Syrians against Syrians. Under the law, Syrians are required to donate blood when they graduate from high school or college, or receive a driver’s license.
“It means we all shared the same blood in some ways,” Roni said. “Now when these guys kill each other, they might be killing someone whose very blood is in their veins. It’s crazy.”
But perhaps the thing that everyone fears most is expressed in graffiti in the Old City rebel stronghold of Zabadani: “We don’t like you,” it reads. “Soon we will be in the middle of Damascus.”