Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Inside the Syrian inferno

Just two years ago Damascus was renowned for its safety and hospitality, which is far from the situation in the Syrian capital today, writes Bassel Oudat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The restaurants and tourist attractions of Damascus are closed. Its marketplaces are abandoned. Its roads are blocked by security and army barricades. Its population now sleeps to the sound of cannons and rocket launchers. Many people can distinguish the different sounds made by guns and guess where a rocket has landed by listening to its ominous sound.

Damascus was once one of the safest cities in the world, perhaps partly because of the heavy hand of the Syrian intelligence services. Today, no one dares to drive after 10 at night and everyone is home early since anyone who stays out late risks being hit by shrapnel or a sniper’s bullet. Thousands of people have lost their homes and are sleeping in schools, mosques or public parks. Every day that passes adds to the agony.

The tragedy of Damascus is shared by many Syrian cities, and with every new day Syrians struggle to stay alive and to keep up a semblance of normality despite the sound of cannons and gunfire. People are learning how to live in the midst of civil war.

Yet, Syria itself has been no stranger to tragedy, and the Syrian people have endured other episodes of horror over the past 50 years, though nothing on the present scale. In this country of 23 million people, more than 40,000 civilians have been killed over the past 20 months. Nearly 100,000 people have gone missing, most of them feared dead. Hundreds of thousands have been injured, and many more have been detained or forced to live on the run.

There are now some three million displaced people in Syria, half a million of them having crossed the country’s borders to seek safety in neighbouring countries.

Most Syrian cities have come under aerial or cannon bombardment, and some have been systematically destroyed, according to human rights organisations. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed, and the collective displacement of the population has been coupled with the loss of a major part of the country’s infrastructure.

Even the basic conditions of social and economic life have disappeared, as the Syrian regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad tries to shore up its position in its fight against the country’s revolutionaries.

 

TALES OF DAILY LIFE: When Faten, a Syrian housewife, went to the nearby market to buy vegetables in Al-Tadamun, a south Damascus neighbourhood, she came back 10 minutes earlier than usual, not because the market was closed or because the merchants were on strike, but because the market was no longer there. It had been obliterated the night before by aerial bombardment, and nothing was now left.

The military conflict in the country has cast shadows on all aspects of life in Syria, leaving chaos in its wake. Just driving towards the suburbs of Damascus or the outlying countryside, even venturing out of the heavily guarded centre of the city, is already to take an enormous risk. Forget about driving at night.

Checkpoints are everywhere. It is impossible to go far on any main road without being searched. The traffic is hell, as motorists are obliged to stop at roadblocks fortified with tanks and heavy weapons, causing enormous tailbacks and traffic jams.

Motorists, if they know what’s good for them, don’t protest. Those who do can be arrested, or have their cars confiscated. They can even be shot. Place of habitation, marked on Syrian IDs, can be an offense in itself. People born in areas known to oppose the government, towns such as Homs, Deraa and Hama, can find themselves harassed, and activists are routinely detained at army roadblocks. Some have been killed and their bodies handed to their families a few days later.

Snipers pose an even greater danger than cannon fire. They are active in areas thought to be against the government, and snipers can be clearly seen in central parts of Damascus perched on top of government and residential buildings. Syrian activists say that these snipers will shoot indiscriminately at anything that moves, not sparing children or old people. Thousands of people have been killed by sniper fire as they went about their daily business, some of them presumably even being supporters of the regime.

The scope of the devastation is indescribable. Towns and villages that were full of life only 20 months ago now stand in ruins. This is true for most parts of the country, where aerial and artillery bombardment have wrecked more than one-third of all houses and at least as many businesses. Mosques and churches have not been spared, nor have water, electricity and communications facilities.

International aid hasn’t kept up with the scale of the crisis. In towns and villages, hundreds of thousands of families have been reduced to living in sub-human conditions, without shelter, health care or food.

 

A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS: UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, warned in a recent report of the increasing mortality rate among Syrian children because of the lack of medical care and the destruction of hospitals. Some babies born prematurely have died because of a lack of incubators, the current number of functioning machines only meeting 25 per cent of the country’s needs.

Doctors complain of shortages of vaccines, noting that the international embargo against the regime has affected imports of medicine and vaccines. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), nearly 67 per cent of health facilities in Syria have been damaged and of these 30 per cent have been totally destroyed. The Syrian opposition says that the army has deliberately destroyed hospitals in order to deny treatment to wounded opposition fighters.

The authorities have banned the sale of medical supplies that could be used in minor surgery, such as for wounds incurred in fighting. Pharmacists are not allowed to sell cotton, gauze or antiseptics except in minute quantities. They are constantly watched by security officials to make sure they don’t break the rules.

Rubbish is piling up in the streets of the country’s towns and cities, mounds of which the opposition says are not being collected because the government has ordered the rubbish collectors to let it rot, in order to punish residents for siding with the rebels. People are now cleaning the streets themselves, for fear of epidemics if they do not.

The crisis has been particularly tough on Syria’s children. Thousands of children have died in the crisis, and many more have been orphaned or made homeless. According to the opposition revolution database, nearly 3,500 children have been killed since the beginning of the uprising, or nearly seven per cent of total fatalities.

The Syrian Committee for Human Rights (SCHR), an NGO, has reported an alarming tendency by regime forces to arrest or abduct children. It accuses the security services and irregular militia working for the regime of torturing children to force their families to provide information about the rebels or to force members of the opposition to turn themselves in.

In a report entitled “Syrian Children: Violations by the Regime and the Responsibilities of the International Community,” the SCHR says that some children have been raped or tortured in front of family members in order to force the latter to make confessions or provide information.

The international NGO Save the Children also recently published a report on Syrian children, saying that they were being killed, tortured, arrested or abducted by the security forces. The report cites Wael, 16, saying that he saw Alaa, a child of six, being deprived of food and water for three days. Alaa was later beaten to death in order to “punish” his father, an anti-regime activist who had refused to turn himself in.

Syrian human rights activist Michel Shammas said that children are internalising the conflict by staging mock fights in the streets. Educators have noticed that children are showing a tendency to draw scenes of violence, not unlike those to which they are being exposed every day.

 

ECONOMIC CATASTROPHE: In the famous markets of downtown Damascus, dusty garments now hang limply in display windows. Not many people shop in the markets these days. Most just grab what they want from pavement vendors, the kind of inexpensive items sold at cut-down prices by the country’s increasingly large army of street peddlers.

In the town of Aleppo, traditionally the economic capital of Syria, the historic markets have been completely destroyed. Nearly 500 shops were burned down in the famous market in the old city that had been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The fire that destroyed the market happened two months ago, but the smell of smoke still hangs in the air.

The regime itself is in no mood to talk about the country’s economy, with the Syrian deputy prime minister saying that “we entered the crisis without anticipating the European and American sanctions. We import half of our needs of diesel oil, and the economy is declining and so is the production. If the present situation continues, the economy will have a ‘heart attack’.” He, however, was apparently admonished, for this was his last statement on the matter.

Meanwhile, half the country’s factories have closed due to the security situation, and many businessmen have transferred their businesses abroad. Thousands of workers have been laid off, and the international sanctions have brought foreign trade to a halt.

In the worst-hit areas, residents have stopped paying their electricity and water bills, adding to the government’s financial woes. Since the uprising began 20 months ago, prices of fuel and gas have doubled, and people in the cities as well as in the countryside are now using woodstoves in an attempt to overcome the shortage of fuel.

Government estimates say that the country’s production of diesel oil can only meet 70 per cent of demand, and it has become common to see people standing in line to buy a bottle of gas, or dozens of buses lining up for fuel at petrol stations. Electricity supplies can be cut off for anywhere between two and eight hours a day.

A few months ago, Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria, described how he had seen some 50 Syrian women lining up at night to buy diesel oil. It was a bizarre scene, he commented, since it is against Arab tradition to put women through such an ordeal and so late in the night.

The Syrian pound has dropped to almost half its former value against the US dollar, and opposition sources say that the country’s reserves of foreign currency have dropped from $17 billion to $1.1 billion over the past two years.

Agricultural production has diminished due to shortages of fertilisers and animal fodder. Many farms have been destroyed and hundreds of trucks stolen. The army is said to have deliberately burned crops in some areas, while the government has been calling on people to plant food in their gardens and raise chickens in their homes.

More than 2,000 schools have been damaged, with the opposition claiming that the army has turned thousands of schools into military barracks and detention camps. According to Sawsan Zukzuk, an activist, students now go regularly to school in only three provinces. “The roads are now too dangerous, and parents are afraid that their children may be abducted and held for ransom,” she said.

Before the uprising, nearly 30 per cent of Syrians lived below the poverty line. Now the figure is said to be twice as much.

The need for humanitarian action is all too clear, says activist Fayez Sarah. “We need help with shelter, food, clothing, medical supplies, and education. But for the aid to reach the worst-hit areas, safe passage must be guaranteed,” he said.

According to UN figures, up to one in five Syrians will need humanitarian assistance in 2013.

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