String of bombings in less than one week leave some Damascenes fearing 'another Iraq'

In the past five days, three suicide attacks in Damascus killed and injured scores of people, mostly civilians, leaving residents anxious and security forces on high alert.

On Wednesday afternoon, a suicide bomber killed at least 31 people and injured more than 100 at the Palace of Justice, the main courthouse in central Damascus. The bombing came at peak time as the building, just next to the entrance of Souq al-Hamidiyeh in central Damascus, was filled with lawyers, judges, clients and visitors.

Shortly after the first explosion, a second attacker detonated at a restaurant in the a-Rabwah area of Damascus, injuring more than two dozen people.  No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Wednesday’s bombings came just four days after scores of people—most of them Iraqi pilgrims—were killed in a twin suicide bombing near the Bab a-Saghir cemetery in central Damascus.

Saturday’s attacks were claimed by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS). The hardline Islamist alliance is led by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, previously Jabhat a-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian wing. HTS claimed the attack was against “Iranian militias.”

HTS denied any involvement in Wednesday’s suicide attacks at the Palace of Justice and the restaurant. Islamist faction Ahrar a-Sham has also issued a statement disavowing the bombings.

 Syrian security forces outside the old Palace of Justice building in Damascus after a reported suicide bombing on March 15. Photo courtesy of Louai Beshara/AFP.

 

Even for Damascenes used to sitting on the fringes of several active battle fronts, the latest bombings make the capital a dangerous place, three residents tell Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani and Mohammad al-Haj Ali.

Explosions, they say, “could happen anytime, anywhere.”

Here, three young residents describe what they are seeing and hearing on the streets of the capital since the latest attacks.

Raneem, 35, works at a printing and publishing office in Damascus. She lives with and cares for her elderly, sick mother.

Q: How and when did you find out about the bombing? Did you see or hear anything?

I found out about the bombing when my friend called me at work. When it happened, people were alarmed and called each other, one after another, to find out what was going on and check on their friends and relatives.

I got the news at around 1:50pm. The calls kept coming; my phone didn’t stop ringing. My mother called to check on my brother and me.

I was not near the Palace of Justice. But I drove by it on my way to work that morning, as usual. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. When I heard about the explosion, it came as a shock.

Q: Can you describe the area where the bombing took place? Do you have any opinion on who could be responsible for the attack?

This area is usually filled with people. The building is an important government institution, and there are many clients and visitors.

I can’t accuse any specific party. But there is blame for the security. This building is fenced, and there is only one entrance that people go through. At that entrance, there is a security checkpoint where people are thoroughly inspected. So, where was the security? Why didn’t they catch the perpetrator and deal with him before he took these lives?

[Ed.: Syrian state television cited the Damascus chief of police as saying that the suicide bomber at the Palace of Justice detonated his explosive device while police were trying to search him and prevent him from entering.]

A friend of mine works in the Palace of Justice. When I heard the news, I scrambled to call him and check that he was all right. I asked him: How could this happen?

He was completely stunned, but nothing bad happened to him, thank God. He was lucky and was on the top floor of the building when it happened. He told me that, all of a sudden, he heard a sound that shook him to his core and he dropped to the floor. [He described] chaos, terror, screaming everywhere. Today, I spoke to him again and he said he couldn’t sleep last night because of what he saw—the blood and body parts.

Q: Last Saturday, another bombing attack in Damascus killed and injured dozens of people. In your opinion, how have these bombings impacted your life, and the lives of others?

I didn’t go to work today. Yesterday, it took me three hours to get home and see my sick mother because of the number of checkpoints and inspections.

My mother missed her scheduled medication, and when I got there she was crying because she was afraid for me. She also needed me to take her to the bathroom, because she can’t walk by herself. She tried to, but fell to the ground.

I saw my mother in a pitiful state, and I cried at the situation we’ve come to. There is no safety anymore. There is fear everywhere. You could leave your house in the morning, and never come back.

After the bombings yesterday, the streets of Damascus emptied out except for the security forces and police. Now, there are checkpoints everywhere and they are carefully inspecting the cars.

When I was returning home from work on Wednesday, I told the officer at the checkpoint to hurry up a bit with the inspection. I pleaded with him, because of my mother, but he refused. He told me that there was another person with an explosive vest who was able to escape, and they were still looking for him. He also said there were two car bombs they were looking for.

People were already tired and exhausted by the situation here. They’re the ones most hurt by what is happening. Every once in a while, a rocket falls here and there and causes material damage. A week ago, one fell on the building next to my house, and destroyed the cars parked in the street.

Most people are desperate, and just want this to end.

**

Aboud a-Sheikh, 25, a master’s student at Damascus University.

Q: How are people responding to the three bombings over the course of a week in vital areas in the middle of Damascus?

People are really anxious, but there is only a little less activity in the streets. Damascenes have grown accustomed to these repeated incidents. People can’t just sit at home; they have to go to work.

Most of those in the city have nowhere else to go. There is no escape. These bombings may be worse, but civilians have grown accustomed to repeated mortar shelling, arrests at checkpoints and kidnappings in broad daylight.

Q: Is there increased security in Damascus today? Additional checkpoints?

There is a clear mobilization of security in the streets of Damascus, with a number of new security checkpoints. They are carefully scrutinizing names and searching vehicles. At some of the checkpoints, they are even searching the items we are carrying.

Additional cement blockades have been set up in front of security centers and government institutions. Some roads leading to large government buildings and security centers have also been closed.

This change occurred immediately following the bombings [on Saturday] in the a-Shaghour area.

Q: What are people saying about these bombings? Who do they blame?

It depends on their personal leanings. Regime supporters accuse “the terrorists,” without identifying a specific group like [the Islamic State] or Nusra [now Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham]. Opposition supporters say that the regime carried out the bombing itself. Their thinking is that these areas are secure and it would be difficult for regular people to get in and carry out a bombing.

Q: Have you changed your daily routine after the latest bombings?

There are some changes that my family forced me to make. Now, when I go to the university, I have to come right back home as soon as classes are finished. If I’m a few minutes late, they start calling me.

Before, I would go out with my friends to cafes or restaurants after classes. Now I can’t. My family says that if the bombers got to the Palace of Justice, then they can easily reach Damascus University.

The way I see it, Damascus has become really dangerous. At first, there was only the fear of arrest. Then, I started to fear being forced into military service, and then of kidnappings. After that, it developed into the mortar shells and rockets. Now, we have these bombings spreading, reaching vital areas in the heart of the capital, Damascus. The scary thing is that three bombings happened in a single week.

**

Abu Salah, 25, a student from al-Midan district in Damascus. He is a fourth-year university student studying Arabic literature.

Q: How did you find out about the bombing? Were you close to the area?

I actually wasn’t close to the area, but I found out from my friends who work in Souq al-Hamidiyah, close to where the bombing happened.

The Palace of Justice is right at the beginning of Al-Nasr Street in central Damascus across from the Damascus Citadel and the historic market in the Old City. The area is usually very crowded, and the afternoon—when the bombing took place—is the peak time.

Honestly, I didn’t expect it. Everyone was surprised. My friends who were in the market didn’t notice anything suspicious in the area.

Q: Could you describe the area and the security situation there? What have you heard about it?

Al-Nasr Street, where the [old] Palace of Justice is located, has no checkpoints, coming in or going out. It’s a major road and the closest checkpoint is the one at Bab al-Jabiah.

But there are security checks outside the Palace of Justice. There is one at the door for searching [visitors]. It’s a major roadway so cars naturally pass by. There’s always traffic. There are also people passing by on the street and sidewalk—that’s completely normal.

Q: In your opinion, who is responsible for the bombing? What are people in the streets saying?

I can’t say for sure who is responsible for the bombing; however, the story agreed upon by most Damascus residents is that it was carried out by a man wearing a military uniform. He had a security pass, which gave him access to places like this [court building]. But we don’t know who’s behind it or who sent him. There’s no clear answer yet.

Military uniforms in Damascus are easily accessible for civilians, and someone could easily get a security card that allowed them to get past checkpoints.

Q: How have these bombing affected people? Have you felt them impact your life?

They’ve really impacted people’s movement. People are mentally exhausted, struggling with the scrutiny and searches [of security forces]. Reserves are now being called up to shore up checkpoints. There’s much more traffic, and the security forces are exercising their power over the people.

You can see fear and terror in people’s eyes.  There were bombings in places like the court house and a restaurant, which means it could happen anytime, anywhere.

People are afraid that it will happen again, that we will see Damascus become another Iraq.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.