Damascus on edge as Syria's strife encroaches on capital
Yasser sits in the dark in his clothes shop in Damascus's Old City, listening to the whirr of generators outside – a sound that was alien to until recently. Usually his shop is packed with friends and customers, but Yasser, wrapped in a fleece and scarf, sits alone. "Trade is down and the price of everything is going up," he says dejectedly.
The middle-aged father of five has teabags but no sugar, and last week he could not afford gas to refill the small canister that heats his kettle. "Sugar has become five times more expensive and I've had to change to smoking terrible cigarettes," he says with a wry smile. On the way home from work the day before, he gave in to an ache to treat his family and bought a roast chicken – something that he used to do weekly – so now all his money is gone. "Tell me, how do I survive," he says.
The mood in central Damascus has moved in peaks and troughs since the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. The suburbs and towns that ring the capital have long been up in arms, and trouble inches ever closer to the seat of power. But life in the city is different to that in places such as Homs or Idleb, which are caught in a cycle of protests, armed rebel activity and regime crackdown.
On a sunny day, people wander the cracked streets, peering at new DVDs. The wealthy are back in the upmarket cafes sipping $4 lattes – at least for now. Against the background of a crisis that has put lives on hold, Damascenes are trying to find new routine.
But life is getting gradually harder. Depression and insomnia are reportedly growing as the tales of death and torture mix with uncertainty about the future, exacting a heavy mental toll. Sanctions applied by the US, Europe and some Arab countries have pushed up food and heating prices. The Syrian pound has lost half its value over a year, reaching one US cent in February.
Gas is short and electricity too. A joke has been circulating about a wife who asks her husband how she is supposed to cook without gas. "Use the microwave," he says, only to have her respond that there is no electricity either. The poorest now add that they have no food.
Yasser's life has changed in another way. A month ago he decided to leave his home in the suburb of Zamalka, east of Damascus, and rent a room for his family closer to the city centre. The power cuts there last four hours a day, compared with eight or more at home where his newborn baby was getting cold. Others in the city of seven million now sleep five to a room as relatives pay visits for indefinite periods of time. The UN says there are more than 200,000 internally displaced Syrians, adding to 39,000 refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and others who have paid their own way to move further afield.
The latest influx from Homs, where a month of shelling Baba Amr and other neighbourhoods tore families apart and sent survivors scattering, is rattling Damascus. Residents are conflicted: the bloody tales are harrowing, but there are many in the capital who still have much to lose.
A rich businessman says his friends grow more disgusted with the regime by the day. But Assad's supporters are still passionate, too. A man from the coastal city of Latakia who drives a taxi in Damascus loudly rails against the protesters, screaming that they are "dogs" and berating them for using arms. Some, whatever their political hue, just want the crisis to end.
"I am with the uprising," says a Damascene in his 20s who works for an NGO. "But look, what a mess. I can't help sometimes wishing this had never started, or would end – somehow."
There is no sign of that happening. Instead, people's circles of movement are getting smaller as the bombs and violence encroach. "As I was cowering on the floor I thought, this is a showdown and the crisis will be over," says a young woman who lives in Mezze, an affluent district in west Damascus that was recently the scene of a dawn gunfight. "But then I realised that this is just everyday life in my country now."