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Between bread queues and shifting red lines, war-weary Damascus residents navigate a city in flux

A crowded bus station in downtown Damascus in January. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Dimashqi.


AMMAN: Raeda* used to know Damascus. Born and raised in the capital, she knew every nook and corner of her neighborhood—a sprawl of housing and backstreets at the foot of Mount Qasioun.

But eight years of war has taken its toll on the capital and these days, she says, she barely recognizes it.

“Damascus is no longer Damascus,” the 39-year-old says, describing electricity cuts of up to 12 hours a day, and a city where people have long learned to do without refrigerators, televisions and washing machines.

“People have returned to the old days.”

Every day on her way to work, Raeda sees women and children sleeping on the sidewalks, old men rummaging for food in the garbage containers. And then there are the queues. Whether it’s for buying cooking gas or milk, the lines of people waiting their turn have become an integral part of the cityscape.

The faces have changed too. Displacement, death and army conscription have changed the capital’s demographic fabric and, walking through the streets of her neighborhood in the Muhajireen district, Raeda says she rarely bumps into anyone she knows anymore.

“Sometimes, I feel like a stranger to Damascus,” she says. “Wherever you go, you feel pain and sorrow at the thought of how things used to be.”

Early last summer, the Syrian government seized full control over Damascus and its outlying countryside after a series of major pro-government offensives put an end to the last besieged rebel pockets of the city in East Ghouta and South Damascus.

Not long after, sporadic signs of a city coming back to life began to appear—checkpoints came down across the capital, and residents started to trickle out of their homes and into the parks, restaurants and markets of the city.

The Syrian government has since promoted a seemingly ubiquitous narrative of transition towards peace and reconstruction, regularly advertising large-scale urban redevelopment projects and organizing international fairs and festivals in the hope of attracting investors.

For them, the war is over.

And yet the city is still very much living with its aftermath.

The conflict has displaced millions of Syrians, while tens of thousands have disappeared into the government’s sprawling network of prisons and security branches.

Meanwhile, those who stayed behind are now attempting to get by amid soaring prices and a decimated public services infrastructure.

“I’m fighting a war with life itself,” says Raeda.

But after losing—and giving up—so much during several years of war, Damascus residents tell Syria Direct that the war has changed day-to-day society irrevocably. Before the war, Syria was known as the “kingdom of silence”—a place of mukhabarat (intelligence) officers and precious few freedoms. Bashar al-Assad’s brief experiment with a more liberal rule after taking power in 2000, known as the Damascus Spring, ultimately ended in repression.

And yet ordinary people in Damascus now appear less willing to put up with socio-economic hardship, corruption and nepotism—and they’re more vocal about it. These days, residents say, it’s not uncommon to hear people murmuring in the corners of cafés and restaurants about perceived ineptitudes of the government.

An alleyway in Damascus’ a-Shaghour neighborhood on March 23. Photo courtesy of
Lens Young Dimashqi.

‘Aren’t you afraid?’

Damascus’ winter has begun to subside.

But not long ago, during the bitterly cold winter months at the beginning of the year, Damascus was in the midst of a devastating fuel crisis that left thousands of residents shivering in the cold and unable to cook for themselves.

Sometimes, even before sunrise, long queues would have already formed—winding through the city streets as people waited to buy cylinders for heaters and cooking gas, usually at highly inflated prices.

Residents often coped with the situation with dark humor and sarcasm. For weeks, social media was flooded with jokes and satirical comments—some even directly aimed at Ali Ghanem, Syria’s minister of petroleum and mineral resources, as well as local officials.

Shireen, a charity worker in her 30s, certainly doesn’t hold back when complaining online about the state of Damascus’ poor infrastructure, daily electricity cuts and widespread corruption.

“‘Shireen, your tongue is long’,” she remembers friends telling her, using an Arabic expression for someone with a big mouth. ”Tuck it away!’”

When discussing face-to-face with friends and relatives, she’s even more direct—often to the great discomfort of people around her. Some simply nod their heads in silence to avoid confrontation, she says. Others have got up and left altogether, subsequently cutting off their relationship afterwards.

“‘Aren’t you afraid?’” they often ask.

Usually, the answer is no. Shireen says she’s learned to live with the boundaries—what you can say, what you cannot.

“I’m not doing anything [wrong]. I’m [only] criticizing within the red lines permitted to me,” she tells Syria Direct, adding that, as a rule of thumb, she tends to steer clear of taking on what she calls the “icons”—prominent government figures, ministries and the rest.

Now that hostilities have come to an end in the capital, observers and Syrians argue that the increased discontent on social media is simply a manifestation of residents’ patience running out.

“The war is no longer a catch-all excuse for the government,” Damascus-based Syrian journalist Danny Makki wrote in a recent Middle East Institute article.

And the gas crisis was not an isolated incident.

‘Yes, Mr. Citizen!’

In October last year, the Syrian government issued Presidential Decree No. 16, ultimately granting the Ministry of Religious Endowments more powers. The decree was met with widespread discontent online, and was even criticized by prominent members of parliament and artists for being an attack on secularism. The Syrian parliament eventually amended the decree and passed a diluted version of the original bill.

Criticism of widespread corruption and nepotism has become commonplace on social media and even on some pro-government outlets.

According to Ammar Waqaf, a member of the pro-government British-Syrian Society originally founded by relatives of the Assad family, the improved security situation in Damascus has given way to residents “demand[ing] ‘more’ from the government.”  

And for now, at least, Syrians say that there seems to be at least some space for criticism—albeit with important caveats.

“As long as we focus on the issue from a social perspective we’re safe,” says Nidal, a television director working with a pro-government news outlet based in Damascus.

The war, he explains, has given way to the emergence of new social trends—particularly among young people—that were previously considered taboos. His channel openly discusses homosexuality and students living with flatmates of the opposite sex.

Although the station he works for produces TV programs that are sometimes “closely tied to politics,” he says that there are certainly some “red lines that cannot be crossed.”

“You can talk about the electricity [cuts],” he explains. “But don’t bring up the ministry.”

To ordinary residents, however, the talk and criticism that appears on pro-government news outlets and among celebrities seen as government loyalists rings hollow.

“It’s like a justification,” Shireen says, sarcastically imagining the rationale of a government bureaucrat.

“‘Yes, Mr. Citizen! You can express your opinion on these things’,” she mocks. “We feel your pain!’”

Others remain even more skeptical about any hope of genuine change.

“This is just to provide a vent,” says Muhammad a-Shami, a young Damascene activist who for years has worked with Lens Young Dimashqi, an opposition media outlet on Facebook that features photography portraying everyday life in Damascus.

“But this criticism is not about holding anyone responsible and does not reflect a desire for reform,” he says. “It’s a theater performance.”  

In a recent speech to the head of Syria’s local councils, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad acknowledged that people were suffering, calling out widespread corruption and “selfishness and fraud” as a central part of the problem. However, he then quickly went on to talk about Syria’s “social media war.”

A devastated street running through an East Ghouta neighborhood on November 28, 2018. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Dimashqi.

And despite the tentative outbursts of discontent, the Syrian government still does not go easy on the press.

In line with Syria’s long history of silencing the press, earlier this month, the head of Syria’s public prosecution reiterated the existence of a decades-old law stating that publishing fake or exaggerated news that “weakens the national morale” during wartime can be punishable with between three to 15 years of forced labor.

Journalists who once operated with relative freedom from rebel-held areas around Damascus have either fled or gone silent. Meanwhile, the few that remain are forced to continue their work underground, constantly hiding from the government’s notorious security branches.

A-Shami, the Lens Young Dimashqi journalist, said he will only ever post criticism online anonymously, so that he “won’t disappear.”

He spoke with Syria Direct under strict condition of anonymity, and asked that all personal details about him be withheld for fear of being identified.

‘Catching the saboteurs’

Even those in pro-government ranks are not necessarily safe.

Over the past few months there have been reports of at least a handful of arrests of journalists previously known as government loyalists. The most high-profile: Wissam a-Tayr, head of pro-government news network Damascus Now.

Known for being a staunch supporter of the Syrian government, a-Tayr was arrested in December under mysterious circumstances. No specific charges were pressed against him, but some suggest that the Damascus Now co-founder was planning to reveal a major corruption scandal involving the Ministry of Interior.

ٍShortly after his arrest, a-Tayr’s family launched a campaign on social media to push for details about his whereabouts and the circumstances of his arrest. Rumors began circulating in January that a-Tayr had died under torture in custody.

His whereabouts remain unknown.

For ordinary Damascus residents, though, navigating this new security landscape—and its often invisible set of privileges according to one’s class, sect and wasta (connections)—can be tricky. In Damascus, red lines are not always easily discerned.

Originally from one of Damascus’ upper-class districts, charity worker Shireen says half of her family has been in favor of the Syrian government throughout the conflict. Some of her relatives even hold senior positions in the military.

And although they strongly disagree with her politics, she says that family ties weigh heavier in the end.

“Maybe because we’re one family, there’s some sort of respect between us,” she explains. “So even though they could potentially hurt others, they can’t do anything to me.”

But regardless of social status, Syrians in Damascus say, the risk of being arrested is often a matter of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Residents describe the situation in Damascus as increasingly dominated by corruption and abuse of power.  

According to Shireen, it’s not uncommon to see police or army officers taking advantage of their position to harass and pick on ordinary citizens—usually on the pretext of serving the national well-being and “catching the saboteurs.”

“If you get into a fight with them—even if it’s just about a pack of cigarettes,” she explains, “they can drag you to the [security] branches and invent a suitable accusation for you.”

“Everyone in this country has created their own state around them,” she jokes.

*Syria Direct has changed the names of all sources in Damascus quoted in this report to protect their identities.

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