More than a dozen mortar shells landed on multiple historic neighborhoods in central Damascus in recent days, killing at least 25 people in the first such attacks on the relatively calm, regime-held districts since a US- and Russian-brokered ceasefire went into effect in February.
Among other places, the mortars fell on Bab Touma, a Christian-majority district in the Old City. The labyrinthine streets and alleys of one of the world’s oldest neighborhoods are familiar to Syrians, tourists and foreign students.
“People really love this area,” a student in Damascus tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Ibrahim.
No party has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Prior to February’s ceasefire agreement, rebel militias in the East Ghouta suburbs regularly shelled regime-controlled Damascus neighborhoods.
People used to want the opposition to enter, the student said. “But they don’t any more, not since hundreds of people died last year because of their mortar attacks.”
Q: How did people react to the recent shelling of Old Damascus with mortars?
We’re used to getting bombed, but not in Old Damascus. Seven months ago, mortars would fall on most parts of the city, but not the Old City. Most bombings stopped after the death of Zahran Alloush [Ed.: The leader of the rebel group Jaish al-Islam was killed in December 2015] and the ceasefire. After that, bombing was limited to certain areas like Haresta, Aush al-Warwar, Dahiyat al-Assad and the outskirts of Masakan Berza. There was nothing in the rest of Damascus.
It is strange that Old Damascus was struck this time.
Qamar a-Sham restaurant in the Old City. Photo courtesy of “Mortars Being Launched on Damascus”
Q: What if the opposition entered Damascus? Do you think people in the city will accept them?
People used to want the opposition to enter. But they don’t any more, not since hundreds of people died last year because of their mortar attacks.
For that reason, people oppose both sides [the regime and the opposition]. But what power do our words have when faced with weapons?
I don’t know why the bombings targeted Old Damascus. It was a random strike. I think its purpose was to scare civilians and further destabilize the area.
Q: Did you witness the bombings? Do you know anyone who was injured?
Yes, I saw a mortar fall on Abu Rumaneh [Ed.: A well-off district in the heart of downtown Damascus home to embassies and upscale restaurants.]
I was very close and sitting in my car. For several seconds I was stunned out of fear and shock.
In 2014, a mortar fell on my friend’s house in Rukn al-Deen and killed his father. Only the shell of the house remained, there were no walls or tiles. Nothing was left untouched.
My friend injured his knee and he was comatose for several days. We thought he was dead. Thank God he’s okay.
Q: Why is Old Damascus significant?
It’s an old, deep-rooted area of Damascus. There are many heritage and tourist sites that are open to everyone. There are also many restaurants, coffee shops and hotels. People really love this area.
Q: Do you think there will be another attack? Or was this an isolated incident?
I think more attacks will come. Anything is expected, from both sides. Maybe airstrikes will hit Damascus like they have other cities. Maybe the mortars will start falling again. Maybe electricity will be completely shut off or communications will shut down for a month.
Damascus is the capital and it has high-profile locations, so security is tighter since it’s vulnerable to bombings.
Q: Are people afraid?
What’s the point of being afraid?
Even if we stay afraid, the world won’t do anything. The conflict has lasted a long time, and it’s going to last a lot longer. Families want to eat and students want to continue their studies. People just want to live their lives.
No one is standing by our side. The international community is sitting back as if nothing is happening.
Six months ago it was Jaish al-Islam who claimed responsibility. This time, no party has claimed responsibility, but both the regime and the opposition target Damascus. They’re both just as bad.