April 17, 2013 / 2:29 PM / 5 years ago

Life and death in Damascus's shrinking Square of Security

Pedestrians stop to read details of a death notice at a street in Damascus, April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - In Damascus, even death offers no respite from the suffocating conflict encroaching on the Syrian capital.

The once secure central neighborhoods of the city are being sucked into the turmoil ravaging Syria as rebel fighters battle President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on its periphery and step up rocket fire into central Damascus.

Relatives of people killed in and around the city cannot retrieve bodies before signing a mountain of paperwork absolving government forces of blame - just the first obstacle to be overcome before they can start a mourning process that is itself highly restricted.

Victims of violence cannot be described as “martyrs” in the death notices pasted on city walls and along narrow alleys unless they die fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Only vague phrases, such as “due to a tragic accident”, are acceptable.

Bodies cannot be taken to mosques for funeral prayers in case they become a platform for anti-Assad protest.

And when mourners finally lay their loved one to rest, prayers are conducted in haste under the watchful eye of security forces who roam cemeteries to guard against the smallest display of anti-government sentiment.

The killing of a Damascus merchant, a distant relative of this reporter, at a checkpoint just a few weeks ago - a death described by his immediate family as random and unnecessary - highlighted both the new daily perils of Damascus life and the tribulations after death.

A trader in his 60s from the Old City in central Damascus, Aboudi was killed by a government sniper as his brother drove him and his son through a checkpoint on a morning errand to buy bread, his relatives told me. I have given only his family name to protect his identity.

The men passed through the area regularly and were known to the soldiers manning the checkpoint, who often waved them through. On this morning Aboudi’s partially deaf brother saw a guard nod his assent, and drove through the checkpoint, unaware that another guard was shouting at him to stop.

A jittery conscript providing cover to the guards assumed the men were trying to flee and opened fire, killing Aboudi and wounding his brother and the young man in the back seat.

For the family, grief over their loss was compounded by the bureaucracy which followed.

“They had to sign papers that say it was terrorists who did it, and that the government had no role at all in his death,” said Aboudi’s daughter-in-law. “They didn’t release the body until all forms were signed and sealed with thumb prints.”

Describing her husband as “heart-broken” over his father’s death, she said he and others in the neighborhood have vowed revenge on the soldier, who has not been seen since.

The dead man, popular in the Old City because of his reputation for giving money to the needy and poor, was buried in a muted ceremony without fanfare, under supervision of the security forces.

Family members said they were denied a full prayer service for him at a local mosque “for security reasons”.

TWO STEPS FROM DEATH

Aboudi’s killing was just one of many in a mounting death toll that is now part of everyday existence in the capital. Every Damascene today is just one or two degrees removed from the latest casualty.

On a daily basis we hear the sonic booms and air raids of fighter jets, the shelling from government-mounted missile batteries stationed in the hills overlooking north Damascus, and rocket and mortar fire from rebels on the outskirts.

Sometimes we count the shells; the other day we heard two dozen just seconds apart.

Another day, a Friday before midday prayers, I heard thuds and booms from the edge of the city as government MiG jets unleashed their bombs on the farming area of Sbeineh, where in happier days we went to get fresh air and pick apples.

The bombs also fell on Daraya, a working-class suburb that fell to the rebels months ago and has been reduced to a ghost town by relentless government shelling.

From my kitchen window, I saw black smoke rising from Daraya. Dense, acrid and slow-moving, it spread over the city, following a path taken by Daraya’s families who have fled their district and dispersed around Damascus, doubled and tripled up in small flats with relatives.

One Daraya family of five has been squatting for months in the basement of my building, inside a cramped janitor’s room.

FRUSTRATION

In these tense times, Damascenes complain of frustration and ennui. This is especially true on Fridays, the start of the Syrian weekend and the original day of protests in the early months of Syria’s uprising, which has now spiraled into a civil war which the United Nations says has killed 70,000 people.

Determined to prevent protests, authorities increase security at checkpoints and deny entry to the city from the suburbs, questioning drivers within the city at length.

Nowadays hardly anyone goes out on a Friday, but I had promised to visit relatives so I ventured out, on foot to avoid questioning at checkpoints. The short walking tour brought home how the city has changed.

Damascus today feels smaller and emptier, shrunk to the dozen or so districts under government control known collectively as the ‘Square of Security’. You can walk briskly from one end to the other in under two hours.

As it shrinks, Damascenes with a dark sense of humor have taken to calling it the Triangle of Security.

It includes the historic Old City, where the biblical Saint Paul walked on the Street Called Straight. All the city’s major commercial districts are also in the Square-turned-Triangle, including the ancient bazaar and contemporary shopping malls.

It includes middle class districts, parliament, various ministries and intelligence branches. It is here that Assad and most government officials live.

Assad’s forces are increasingly bringing artillery into the centre of this area, firing from the densely populated area towards the rebels outside.

“We hear it discharge and we hear it pierce the air,” one of my friends told me.

“We hear its whistle as if it’s flying past our window, and we hear it when it falls - the thud and the explosion,” he said, adding that his whole family have been kept awake since the artillery was deployed in his neighborhood a few days ago.

“No matter how hard we try to get used to it, we get startled every time.”

I once had many relatives and friends here. Most of them fled the country when the violence reached their doorstep and life became unbearable.

Such was the case of my cousin when I arrived to bid her farewell. Frazzled and unsure of the future, she and her husband had packed their belongings and were preparing for departure.

It was still light when I returned home. Back in my kitchen, as I prepared my dinner, I looked out the window and saw more smoke. The fighter jets were at their work.

(The journalist’s name has been withheld for security reasons)

Editing by Dominic Evans and Sonya Hepinstall

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