Daily life in Damascus: Cafe culture against a backdrop of bombings

DAMASCUS, Syria -- A uniquely Syrian version of normalcy prevails in the heart of Damascus, where a mix of rural refugees and urbanites conduct their daily business and enjoy the easy cafe culture to the muffled sounds of explosions in the distance.

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The serenity of the capital's historic Marjeh Square reflects the adaptability of Syrians and resilience of human nature. It also underscores the strategically important success of President Bashar Assad in insulating his seat of power from the devastation that has swept much of the country in the nearly 5-year-old civil war.

The 19th century square located just outside the walls of the old city is only few miles away from the war-ravaged eastern suburbs of Damascus. Yet here, women in black abayas and others in cropped jeans take afternoon strolls, mingling with Syrians who fled their homes in battle zones in other parts of the country.

"As you can see nothing happens here," said Saer al-Saleh, a 38-year-old from the central city of Homs who is studying in Damascus and was chatting with two friends in the square, noting that business and commerce goes on. "But outside of Damascus, places like Daraya, like Douma, are hot areas."

As he spoke, two large explosions resounded from the suburbs. Men in the square looked in the direction of the sound without interrupting their discussion.

Damascenes have lived for years now with the sense of being in a fragile but enduring bubble surrounded by war. Many greeted word of a cessation of hostilities due to begin Friday night with skepticism mixed with hope that for the first time, diplomacy could make a difference. Some didn't hear the news when it was first announced earlier this week because of the power outages that often hit.

"Hopefully it will be enforced and not be promises as usual," said Ali al-Masri, a 40-year-old who owns a Damascus ice cream parlour. He fled from the suburbs more than four years ago because of the fighting, so he said the prospect of a halt in fighting that actually holds "makes me very happy."

More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and millions of others displaced in the war. Huge parts of the country have been lost to Islamic extremists and whole areas are completely devastated.

But as governments often do in civil wars, Assad has made it a priority to ensure that the fighting is kept as much as possible out of the lives of those living in the seat of power, Damascus.

Supermarket shelves are well stocked, salaries are paid and restaurants are well booked particularly on weekends. There have been occasional suicide bombings in Damascus, and mortar shells fired from rebel positions in the suburbs at times make it into the central districts -- sometimes with deadly results. But the main intrusion of the war into the city is the daily soundtrack of the whistle and thump of ordnance and the roar of fighter jets from fighting off in the outskirts.

For 60-year-old Najah, who was in the square enjoying the sun, Damascus is a refuge from her hometown of Boukamal, near the border with Iraq, which is now part of the Islamic State group's self-proclaimed "caliphate" straddling the two countries.

"Life isn't good there," she said, refusing to give her last name for fear of reprisal by the militants. She took the edge of her headscarf and flipped it over her whole face to demonstrate how she has to cover herself back home under the strict version of Islamic law that the militants impose in areas under their control.

Still, she is going back. She made an 8-hour journey to Damascus for medical treatment and will return home to her family soon.

For visitors to Damascus, life may seem disconcertingly normal.

At the famous Tawil market in Bab Touma, a Christian neighbourhood that has been occasionally hit in the crossfire between rebel and government forces, sellers go about their business offering anything from spices to sweets to cellphones.

At the city's top hotels, evening receptions and wedding celebrations carry on, with music blazing over the sound of distant bombs. Only the power cuts, regular but promptly filled by humming generator in the cities chic venues, manage to temporarily halt the party.

But the war is also taking its toll. By now, everyone holds a painful memory of a suicide bombing, or a mortar that hit a neighbour's home, or a shell that killed a loved one. Families have been broken apart and prices are skyrocketing.

One long-time Damascus resident said she had never seen the war with her own eyes, only heard about it -- until a mortar shell fell on the building where she was teaching her 5-year-old kindergarten pupils.

The shell destroyed the ceiling of the top-floor classroom, which was empty at the time.

Like other locals, al-Saleh, the student, has grown an unusual faith in destiny. "It's just a matter of luck," he added. "We cannot say that we live in peace, but life goes on and you can't stop living."

"It is all in God's hands," said 28-year-old Haifa Hammoud as she took pictures of her children in front of the waterlock of Marjeh square, on her way home after picking them up from guitar lessons.

"I love Syria. I won't ever leave," she said.



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