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Damascus: A city changed by war

Correspondent Reese Erlich returned to Syria's capital after being away for two years. He inquired about journalist James Foley, who went missing nearly one year ago.
Damascus Syria funeral November 2013Enlarge
Mourners carry the coffin of one of the children killed the day before when mortar rounds hit a school bus on November 12, 2013 outside al-Moujtahed Hospital in the Syrian capital Damascus. Four students were killed when a mortar hit the vehicle they were riding in. (AFP/Getty Images)

DAMASCUS, Syria — The regular crunch of artillery and the persistent crackle of machine gun fire are everywhere here, and the closeness of the war caught me by surprise.

They are the sounds of daily fighting in and around Damascus as the Syrian army attacked rebel positions on the outskirts of the capital. The artillery rounds are so common that locals don’t even flinch when they explode and rumble across the city. I definitely flinch.

Damascus has changed profoundly since my last reporting visit two years ago — and definitely not for the better. While Damascus of 2011 was home to frequent rallies and marches calling for freedom, the Damascus of 2013 is a city at war. Concrete barriers block formerly busy thoroughfares and military checkpoints pockmark the city.

“We learned to ignore the sounds of war,” said Dr. Bassam Barakat, a medical doctor and pro-government political activist. He doesn’t mind the inconvenience of the checkpoints, he says, because they help maintain security.

Everyone seems to have a near-miss story, with mortar rounds and rockets periodically hitting civilian areas. On Sunday mortar rounds fell in an Armenian Christian section of Damascus, just an hour before I went there to report.

I’ve made the drive from Beirut to Damascus many times. It used to take about two-and-a-half hours. Now it can take twice as long due to intensified border security and seven checkpoints along the highway. The traffic delays feel interminable.

Soldiers at the checkpoints mostly wave cars through, occasionally stopping to inspect a back seat and trunk for smuggled weapons. The resulting traffic jams cause havoc for emergency vehicles. I saw one maneuvering on a sidewalk and another driving the wrong way on a major street in order to get through.

Most checkpoints have two lanes: civilian and military. The military lanes allow soldiers, intelligence officials and anyone with a special ID to pass quickly. The civilian lines, which include taxis, take far longer.

Journalists usually travel by taxi.

The economy, which was never in great shape, has tanked. Inflation and unemployment are serious problems. Two years ago, the US dollar bought 50 Syrian pounds. Now it buys 142.

That’s actually an improvement over recent exchange rates, when the pound sank as low as 330 to the dollar.

So the few Syrians with access to foreign currency live well. But most face hardships from inflation-reduced salaries and shortages of goods. Western sanctions mean Syria can no longer export oil, a major source of hard currency. Domestic factories and infrastructure have been hit hard by the fighting.

Gasoline shortages mean long lines at gas stations. Taxi drivers have a hard time making a living because of high gas prices and longer times to reach destinations.

Power blackouts are common as rebels blow up electrical stations and power lines. On Sunday, a big chunk of Damascus was blacked out for several hours. The city once vibrant with night life now pretty much shuts down after dark.

Political opinion remains split about the Assad government. He retains strong support among the country’s minorities: Shia, Alawites, Druze and Christians. They may criticize Assad but see him as far better than rule by extremist Muslim rebels.

Bishop Armash Nalbandian, a leader of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Damascus, told me, “When the crisis began in 2011, they called for freedom.”

But opposition demonstrators “didn’t bring stability,” he said. “I want this government to be protected.”

However, significant numbers of Sunni Muslims and some in the previously loyal business class sharply oppose Assad. The opposition is divided but no one I spoke with wanted extremist Muslim groups in power.

The question remains: With conditions getting worse, will the people of Syria blame the government or rebels?

At the beginning of the uprising, opposition activists predicted victory within a matter of months. So did the Assad government. Unfortunately, both were wrong.

During my time in Syria, I thought a lot about fellow journalists who have been killed in this war — and the list of those who remain missing and their whereabouts unknown.

In an interview with Minister of Justice Najm al-Ahmad, I asked if he could help locate James Foley, the missing freelancer who has worked with GlobalPost and who disappeared while reporting from Syria on Thanksgiving Day a year ago. Ahmad indicated, as the Syrian government has stated before, that he didn’t know the whereabouts of Foley or other missing journalists who disappeared in rebel held areas. He did say the Syrian government is trying to find them.

My sympathy and solidarity goes out to Foley and his family. He is living the nightmare every Mideast correspondent fears. I know I speak for all of my GlobalPost colleagues and for so many journalists from around the world when I say Jim is constantly in our thoughts. 

 

GlobalPost special correspondent Reese Erlich's reporting from Syria was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/groundtruth/damascus-syria-city-changed-war