Middle East

Battle for Damascus: The view from the streets

Tank tracks are seen on a street at al-Midan neighbourhood in Damascus July 20, 2012.
Image caption Tank tracks carve up the streets of the Damascus neighbourhood of Midan, which is now half-empty after heavy fighting

As the 16-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reaches the capital Damascus, a journalist based in the city describes the scenes in the southern suburbs hit hard by recent fighting.

Just before dawn, Um Outhman and her three children walked out of their house on to the highway in Qaboun, near the centre of Damascus.

They were fleeing their home, and the pre-dawn quiet was the only time the shooting and shelling had calmed down enough to leave.

Her family had not slept for the past four nights. A tank had driven past and destroyed a wall of their home, and they had seen planes firing from above.

Um Outhman was met by activists who found her a house with another family that had managed to escape. This is the story of hundreds of Damascenes today.

"We are still alive but my husband stayed behind, he had to protect the house," she says. "They are looting everything."

Empty streets

Some people in the areas of Midan and Tadamon, in the south of the city, have already lost their houses to shelling.

Usama, a medical doctor in his mid 40s, has fled Midan. He couldn't hide his tears as he described what had happened there.

"They sent in buses of soldiers who were all killed, they send the Sunni soldiers first as scapegoats, then the Alawite security and shabiha get in."

He left Midan on Tuesday and managed to return a day later to find two army tanks that had been destroyed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

"The Free Syrian Army didn't want to destroy the tanks before the families leave the area, as they know the reaction from the regime will be harsh. The tank was too close to my house."

Despite the attack mounted by the FSA, by Friday the Syrian government said it had to clear Midan of "terrorists", which is how it describes the armed opposition. The Free Syrian Army announced it was withdrawing from Midan.

Image caption Rubbish is piling up in the streets in some areas of the city

So Midan, the area that witnessed one of the largest protests in central Damascus - reaching more than 30,000 during a funeral for an 11-year-old boy last October - is now empty.

Its food market used to host Syrians 24 hours a day for the best Damascene food and delights. Now, the streets are blocked with burnt-out tyres or piles of rubbish. The street cleaners have disappeared in the past two days but the graffiti demanding freedom remains on almost every wall.

'The living will rebuild'

The piles of rubbish are almost everywhere in the city. Mohammed, a taxi driver, joked that the street cleaners are all informants for the secret police.

"They are on duty, they have been called back to their security bases," he said.

Mohammed and his cousin had gone out to help families who fled their homes, buying them dates for the first day of Ramadan.

Although the Syrian government announced that Ramadan - the Muslim holy month of fasting - would start on Saturday, most Syrians fasted today.

"Assad wanted to follow Iran and Iraq's timing of Ramadan while the rest of the Arab World is fasting today, we shall not listen to him," Mohammed laughed.

On their way, they found a women walking with her bags alone under a bridge near Midan. She had fled and couldn't find transport. There are no cars on the streets. They gave her a lift and took her to an area near Khaled Ibn al-Walid Street, not far from the central Hijaz railway station and Souq al-Hamidiya, the old city's famous covered market.

Five people had been killed in that very street an hour before. Again, rubbish was spread everywhere and in the alleyways leading to the main road, the revolutionary flag flew and anti-Assad graffiti marked the walls.

The battle is getting closer and closer to the centre. Yet amid all the violence and loss of lives, Syrians are laughing and joking with each other.

"The changes that are happening make me feel Bashar's time is coming to an end," Mohamad said, smiling.

"We don't know who of us will be alive tomorrow, but we know for sure that Syria will be better once Assad's regime is out."

He added: "Those among us who remain alive will rebuild it."