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A Moment of Life in Wartime Damascus


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Written by: Ben Allen

Experiencing the Syrian Civil War

Eight people ride in the flatbed of the tiny white pickup truck that is such a common sight on the streets of Damascus, the capital of Syria. Down to my left, the airport highway – dubbed by some the ‘highway of death’ – continues to flow. The packed truck heads for it. I see a single figure standing on the opposite side of the central divider. An AK-47 hanging loosely at his side, he watches the traffic for a few moments as it speeds past and then moves away.
Huge haulage trucks brimming with cargo sound their horns as they squeeze past yellow taxis and minibuses on the cracked tarmac. Beyond that there is little sign of life. The neighbourhood on the opposite side of the highway from my vantage point – a friend’s balcony in the southern Damascus suburb of Jeramana – is deserted.

Many buildings lie ruined, partly collapsed, entire walls ripped off from tank and mortar shells at some point over the past three years.

The minaret of the mosque closest to us is a broken shell of its former self. All twisted metal and crumbling stone, tattered and bullet-riddled, it still reaches up to heaven. But now, all is silent in that neighbourhood. There is no more call to prayer. The rebels there have been fought into submission. Here, in Jeramana, the government is in control of the streets. This gives us relative safety.

The signs of war are everywhere

There is only the difference of a few hundred metres between Jeramana and its deserted neighbour, but what a difference it makes. Life continues as normally as possible here. Commuters drive to work or wait for buses and taxis, the streets are busy, businesses remain open. Even a lycra-clad cyclist on his carbon fibre racing bike peddles along the road, as if it were a summers’ day in rural England. But the signs of the war are everywhere. On the street below our balcony, five stories down, is a military checkpoint. The personnel are all armed, but they aren’t part of the Syrian army. They are “shabeeha” – guys from the neighbourhood who volunteer for the government as militia to protect the entrance to Jeramana.
Each thoroughfare entering the suburb is the same. Every vehicle wishing to pass is ushered down a small lane in the road, marked by old car tyres. Drivers are stopped, asked where they are going, and have to produce ID if necessary. Some have their trunks checked and all are subjected to a little electronic device that looks like a radio aerial that senses the presence of explosives.
So far, in the week I’ve been in Damascus, there has been no problem. But it hasn’t always been this way.

A while ago the checkpoint was positioned twenty metres closer to the highway. Rebels ambushed it and killed many of the volunteers. Not a nice sight to come home to.

But control was wrested back and Jeramana, with its constant soundtrack of generators combating the six hours of mains electricity a day, continues to thrive. As I type, the deep roar of a jet engine fills the sky. The Syrian Air Force. They fly over the area most mornings it seems. Usually just a single MiG, heading towards an unknown target somewhere a few miles away. Yesterday we saw smoke rising from the west, just after the jet had departed. I climbed up on the roof and ducked between the forest of satellite dishes to get a better look of what had happened. A single building in the distance was burning. From the jet? Maybe. No one really knows. These plumes of smoke are a fairly common blot on the Damascus skyline these days. A few months earlier they were here in abundance, I’m told. But less so now. Normality is returning.

Every night, the sound of the war just a few hundred meters away intensifies.

The situation remains fairly quiet during the day, but as darkness descends all hell breaks loose. Last night was no different. Shots ring out. You can follow the yellow lines of the tracer bullets as they cross above the highway, lighting up a stricken building opposite as they make contact. Wait a few seconds and you can sometimes see return fire. Not tonight though. The neighbourhood remains empty. A distant explosion sounds, and the dull thud of an artillery shell being launched just streets away. Often, you can see the shell arc across the night sky. Then wait, wait, wait, wait… bang. The sound of the shell hitting. Its target? Maybe.

We sleep on the expansive balcony. In the day time, temperatures reach the 40s. The severely rationed electricity is insufficient for fans to cool the apartment down. We have no air conditioning. It is cooler outside at night than indoors. But with sleeping outdoors comes little protection from shells – and mosquitoes, plus a grandstand view of any nightly artillery barrages. But at least it’s cool enough to sleep. Being in Syria at this time gives an interesting perspective of the conflict and its effects on everyday life. Definitely an unforgettable experience.

The first time I came to Damascus a few weeks ago the airport highway was all quiet. It still seems so now, but clearly it remains a dangerous drive.

In my absence, enormous concrete barriers have been erected opposite the intersection that leads to the Jeramana road and the checkpoint. I guess there was firing down that route from the rebel area in the couple of weeks when I was back in the comparative safety of Beirut. Now there’s a wall between us and the other neighbourhood. The checkpoint guys seem fairly relaxed. During my weeks in Syria, they got very familiar with the tall British guy with the Syrian wife who often wander past their post. They are happy to chat and were overjoyed with our gift of Fattoush and homemade French fries for Iftar, on the first day of Ramadan.

Looking forward to times of peace

They are bored of the war, happy to see foreign visitors return. Albeit just one. We greet them on our way back to the apartment the following day. They have the dishes washed and ready for us. The other night, though, they weren’t so relaxed. Fighting in another neighbouring district, Mleiha, was intensifying. We could hear it from Jeramana, and the guys were jittery, tense, jumpy. They waited. We waited. But nothing happened. Jeramana stayed secure. Now the smiles, Maté and nargiles have returned.
I see two figures walking alongside a dividing wall at the edge of the opposing neighbourhood. The first figures I’ve seen there from my balcony perch. It’s green over there; grassy, tree-lined. The green offsets the concrete grey of the deserted and destroyed apartment blocks, leading up to the water tanks on the roofs – all the same shade of red. Above that, the endless blue of the Syrian sky. Today, the temperature will once again hit 40 degrees, the sun beating down mercilessly on this ancient city and the surrounding Qalamoun Mountains.
I wonder when the heated atmosphere of Syria will finally subside and the checkpoint guys can go home and forget it was ever this hot.

About the Author
Ben Allen
Ben Allen is a freelance writer from Northamptonshire, England. In 2008 he relocated to Vancouver, Canada, after wanting to make a change in his life. Not happy being in one place, Ben has just been on the road undertaking a hitchhiking trip around the Middle East. Now he’s returned to North America where he’s thinking about the next step. You can follow him on Twitter @ballenuk and read more about his adventures at www.benallen.ca.

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