These days, Damascus has started to look and feel more like a fortress. Fear, poverty and increased security have silenced the city’s public gardens and many cafes, replaced by the daily sound of gunfire at noon to mark the funerals of regime soldiers killed in the war.
“When you walk the streets of Damascus, smiles have been exhausted by rising prices of daily necessities,” Abdul-Rahman a-Shami, a 29-year-old Damascene and member of the East Damascus Gathering, a grassroots umbrella group of revolutionary media pages and local coordination council, tells Syria Direct’s Ghalia Mukhalalati.
The proliferation of checkpoints also disrupts the patterns of daily life in the capital city. Activists estimate there are more than 300 official military and security checkpoints in the city, in addition to “flying checkpoints,” which can pop up anywhere at anytime.
As the regime endures losses elsewhere in the country, the soldiers manning these checkpoints are becoming more on edge, and according to a-Shami, more prone to detaining and harassing those passing through
“You can hear the soldiers at checkpoints talking about the recent loss of their friends on the fronts or about the loss of one of their relatives in ongoing battles.”
Q: Given the deterioration of the Syrian pound that has led to an average decline in the monthly salaries of state employees to $70, how are people in Damascus coping with high prices?
The current economic collapse has exposed the financial divisions between citizens into three distinct groups. There are the rich—the owners of factories and companies that haven’t been affected by the current situation, and they were beneficiaries and supporters of the regime from the beginning. They prolong the life of the regime and include some of the most important businessman in the country.
The second group is the “velvet class,” or the independent business owners. They too are unaffected by the ongoing war. Their businesses are spread out through quiet areas (Mezze, Maliki, Abu Romaneh, and the Damar Project just outside Damascus) and even in Old Damascus and other areas of the capital as well as the coast.
These groups pursue their interests, which line up with the interests of the regime, that is, maintaining its own stability and controlling security, especially in the capital.
The third group includes local residents, employees of both the public and private sector, and those called the low earners who work in the service sector and in jobs directly related to the needs of the population, people who have moved here from other places and have a hard time securing a place to live or work, and those who are living on handouts from charitable organizations.
Just securing their basic daily needs is expensive and difficult and has made them very frugal since they can’t be sure of a regular income. The income of a regular citizen is barely enough to buy what he needs day by day, and there is always the possibility that the dollar will rise the next day, preventing him from buying anything that isn’t absolutely essential.
Q: How would you characterize the psychological state of Damascus’s residents?
People’s psychological state differs depending on which of the groups that I mentioned before they belong to. The first group knows for sure that the fall of the regime from which it benefits is only a matter of time, but that it can extend its life. The second group shares in this effort.
As for the third group, most of them look forward to [a rebel offensive in Damascus] as the hour of salvation, although they know that this hour could last hours if the battle stalls, so they try to and save money and food.
Q: When moving through the capital, describe your interactions with the army and its allies.
The security checkpoints in Damascus have recently started rigorous searches of cars and stop passers-by, especially people from the suburbs of Damascus who have fled to the city. The security divisions have also set up a number of “flying checkpoints” inside the city to apprehend individuals wanted for conscription.
Checkpoints have caused severe congestion when there is traffic and these inspections block the streets. One checkpoint in the center of the city inspecting a passenger bus could cause enough traffic to build up all the way to the outskirts of the city. Most people try to avoid these checkpoints as much as they can.
For example, I was taken off a bus at a checkpoint in Damascus. They detained me for four hours without giving me a reason. After two hours, I asked one of the soldiers, “what am I waiting for?” He started insulting me and it seemed like he was going to hit me. After I stood around waiting for four hours, an officer came by and asked what was the reason for stopping me. Finally they checked my ID to see if I was wanted or not. So in the end, the reason I was held up for four hours was just to wait for the commanding officer to come by.
Of course I felt humiliated and insulted and was anxious about what awaited me. I was insulted and harassed for four hours waiting for the commanding officer without being accused of anything or given any explanation.
Q: After recent regime losses, what is the morale and psychological state of regime soldiers at checkpoints? Have you noticed any changes in behavior amongst the army and regime supporters at checkpoints?
Checkpoints are on high alert in terms of inspection scrupulousness and harassment of passers-by. They assault people that are from outside Damascus and people from areas where there is fighting. Those they arrest are put to work constructing more checkpoints, tunnels and fortifications.
You can hear the soldiers at checkpoints talking about the recent losses of their friends on the fronts or about the loss of one of their relatives in ongoing battles. Every day at noon, you can hear the bursts of gunfire in different areas of the capital that mark the funeral of regime soldiers who died in fighting on the fronts.
Q: In your opinion, why is the regime dividing up the city with checkpoints?
The reason for the checkpoints is that the regime is afraid of its own citizens. The people that are stopped at checkpoints are generally from the third group, either original residents of Damascus or people who moved to the capital. The regime views them as its enemy;people who would welcome the victory of rebels coming to Damascus. So, it has to humiliate them and increasingly harass them in order to push them to leave.
Q: With the weak purchasing power of the Syrian pound in comparison to the dollar, are people able to still take part in their favorite pastimes? How do people relax?
The lower class lives in the shadow of a choking siege that affects the everyday citizen to the point that he doesn’t even have public gardens to enjoy since they are full of security forces. He can’t even just have a picnic with his family. This reflects a deliberate policy from security and social experts in the regime to subdue the general population. Restaurants have become a fantasy, even for those with high salaries, and coffee shops are empty except for people with regime connections.
The rich “velvet” upper classes are making an effort to show that they feel stable by going to restaurants, coffee shops and discos; to show they don’t think about what is going on in the country; to show that the war won’t stop them from going to restaurants or limit them from living a full life. Despite these appearances, in reality there is anxiety and concern about an approaching battle [for Damascus] and the fall of the regime.
Q: Have psychological pressure and fear affected civilians inside Damascus?
The people of Damascus and those internally displaced from elsewhere are vigilant and live with constant fear and concern. Especially concerning are the inspection campaigns carried out by security services looking for those wanted for military service. Or they stop displaced people since they aren’t licensed to live in Damascus [the government requires individuals to get a security clearance to rent houses and apartments].
You can also see some people talking to themselves and others suffering from psychological disorders.
When you walk the streets of Damascus you see the faces of people are very stern and worried. There are only frowns: smiles have been exhausted by rising prices of daily necessities. There are also expressions of wonder about what’s next and whether Damascus is going to flare up or stay the way it is.