Middle East

Syria fighting heightens fear in Damascus

Members of the Free Syrian Army in Damascus suburb of Saqba (file photo)
Image caption Residents of the Old City in Damascus talk openly about the Free Syrian Army

As the conflict in Syria grinds on, residents of Damascus have been experiencing violence in and around the capital for the past few months. Here, one of them, "Sara", describes how the city has slowly changed since the fighting erupted early last year.

People in Damascus are getting used to this situation, but it depends on what is happening in the conflict.

When the fighting was close and affecting [central] areas like Abbasiyin Square and Midan people would rush home early.

People are afraid because now they can see the damage of the conflict first-hand, but they have also become braver.

People whisper to each other, and often you hear them talk about the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Ramadan this year was very different. Normally after dusk the whole city would be flocking to the restaurants for Iftar, the traditional meal after fasting; this time, by 22:00 they were home. This was partly due to financial problems, but you could also hear explosions, sometimes every half-hour.

It seems even the famous street cats of Damascus feel the tension in the air. Normally, they are everywhere and noisy at night, but now you neither see nor hear cats after sunset.

You can see the Shabiha [pro-government militiamen] everywhere. They are not gangs as such, but people from the streets with guns who now control their areas.

No-one is comfortable, especially because you can feel the majority of the people are anti-government. But lots of men with guns is a new thing in Damascus.

In one case I know of there was an argument between two men. A third man went to calm the situation, but because one of the quarrelling men was a Shabiha he shot the man trying to calm matters.

The security services knew about this, and usually they would be there very quickly. They actually showed up some 14 hours later, giving the Shabiha a chance to flee the city.

He did this openly in front of everyone on his street in the Old City and no-one could say anything.

Everyone is also very concerned about the Mukhabarat - the secret police.

Image caption "There is fear that Damascus could become another Homs and really suffer"

Twice they have visited my family home outside Damascus. I don't know why they were there, but just being questioned by them was very scary. They wanted to know who my friends were, and where I spent time in Damascus.

It is worrying because people say that death is easier than going to Syrian prison - inside a jail you wish for death a million times.

My parents are actually government supporters, while I am anti-government. But we have no problem with it. I know of many who are in the same situation as me.

We actually have no issues with people who side with the government, but our problem is with the Shabiha, those who are armed and kill people at demonstrations, or help to arrest people.

Like many, my family watches Syrian TV and other channels that say that there is a foreign conspiracy to take over Syria, be it American, or a return of the Ottomans from Turkey.

But now that there are tanks and weapons in the cities and on the streets, people are now seeing for themselves what is happening and this is changing things slowly.

Friends 'disappeared'

There are really two groups of people in Damascus - those who have benefited from the regime who fear the loss of their livelihood and businesses if the government falls, and those who see clearly the damage the regime has done.

Here in Damascus, there is a real fear that the city could become another Homs, Hama or Deraa and really suffer.

And the attitude of the people has changed in the last few months.

There was a time when you could separate the popularity of President Bashar al-Assad from the feelings for the government. That is to say people could dislike the powers that be - but still have respect for Assad himself.

Not any longer. Now they see him as a criminal and who has caused damage to the country. He is also not the right person to lead because he simply cannot control the country.

The armed opposition are everywhere, even in the capital.

We have heard conflict in Damascus at Abbasiyin Square, Baghdad Street, in areas like Rukn al-Din and close to the Umayyad Mosque in the Old City.

I know people who have been killed. A friend was shot at a funeral close to Abbasiyin Square and I also have a lot of friends who have been arrested.

I have no idea where some of them are. Some spent a few months in jail, some for 60 days, and others have just disappeared.

A cousin of mine was arrested because he was helping refugees with housing and medicine, and spent three months in jail.

However, it is clear that the people are not as afraid as before. The assassinations of four top security officials in July has emboldened many people, as it showed that the FSA could really get to anyone.

If you go to the streets of the Old City you will hear people discussing politics, the FSA and the regime, sometimes quite openly. They are still quiet about Assad, but apart from that, there is plenty of conversation.

None of us are sure how this will end. I believe the regime will fall, but I think it might last a few more months.

We do fear that there will be chaos when this happens. There are plenty of people armed on both sides. In pro-government areas there are armed people on nearly every street.

Boys as young as 15 are carrying guns in neighbourhoods like Mezzeh, and in the mountains north-west of Damascus. They are not soldiers, policemen or Mukhabarat - they are boys with guns, asking questions of everyone.