Surreal Damascus, shellfire and lattes in a city under siege

Its suburbs are rubbled war zones, and bus routes are changed hourly because of sniper fire. But as Nelofer Pazira reports, the great gardens of Damascus are immaculate and there is still nightlife in the souks and restaurants of the Syrian capital.

Nelofer Pazira on the two faces of Syria's capital

Free Syrian Army fighters take up positions in the rubbled Damascus suburb of Sidi Meqdad earlier this week. (Reuters)

Damascus is a city where the soundtrack has gone out of sync with the pictures. Where the sound of shellfire roars alongside the morning latte in a quiet café. 

The daily newspapers still publish, but the pages are filled with pictures of soldiers and rubble. The buses run on time — but the front lines move so fast that the destination boards have to be scribbled in handwriting, as their routes change hourly to avoid rebel snipers.

Car bombs explode almost once a week and incoming rocket fire hits public buildings, yet the city's parks and gardens are immaculately kept, their lawns carefully trimmed.

So keen is the besieged government of Bashar al-Assad to show that city life remains normal that it trucks civil servants to the ministry of agriculture on the edge of rebel-held Jobar in armoured vehicles.

"Even if you have no work, just go to work," they are told, according to a Syrian journalist. "It's to show that the city continues to function."

And in its way, Damascus still lives. Its markets are crowded; its high-class hotels — the Sheraton and Four Seasons — are open for business, albeit on a skeleton staff.

Restaurant menus are a familiar mix of Arab mezzes and French fries. But a sinister label on the back of the menu reminds you of the added cost of being in a city under siege: "35 per cent will be added to all prices, it says.

Even the laundry list at the Sheraton has a 40-per-cent markup. Inflation and international sanctions have bitten deeply into the city's economy. Two years ago a U.S. dollar bought 20 Syrian pounds, today it buys almost a hundred.

Rebels closing in

Still, worshippers continue to crowd the 8th-century Umayyad mosque where the tomb of the warrior Saladin stands only a few metres from the remains of John the Baptist. And where the sound of explosions penetrates even these holy precincts.

The mosque's namesake in the northern city of Aleppo has been badly damaged by the fighting. But the treasures of Damascus have so far remained untouched, and every Damascene understands the fragility of this heritage.

The metal roof of the souk still carries the bullet holes of French gunfire from the country's 1946 battle for independence.

Assad's armed opponents in this civil war — most of them from the country's Sunni majority — have almost surrounded his capital, and are close enough to fire mortars at ministry buildings, even at the Sheraton hotel, when they have the time or inclination.

The ruined suburbs of Kafar Sousa, Maidan, Zabatani, Jobar, Jarmana, Harasta have been battlefields for months now.

Recently, to visit the ancient shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, required a military escort as we drove at 140 kilometres an hour down the dangerous airport road and then through laneways under sniper fire where government soldiers hide behind sandbagged checkpoints.

Acres of rotting garbage could be seen smouldering in the fields, and broken glass littered the pavement beside a government tank.

Yet even as mortar shells thundered into the surrounding buildings, local Shia Muslims arrived to pray at the shrine.

A woman official told me that she spends each day cleaning the mosque and its four minarets. "Of course it's not easy," she says. "But I do it for Sayyida Zeinab herself and she will protect me."

Few ways out

This is not a simple sectarian war. On Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, I lunched at the famous Haratna ("Neighbourhood") Restaurant in the old walled city of Damascus.

The tables were packed with Christians — one of Syria's many minorities — many of them drinking beer, their tables thronged with children.

The walls of Christian churches and mosques stand shoulder to shoulder in the narrow streets in this part of the city, as if proclaiming their brotherhood. Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam, but the president's wife, Asma, is a Sunni.

In the Hamadiya souk, Anas, a wealthy antique shop owner — his store is packed with hundred-year old mother-of-pearl tables — says he does not know whether to stay or leave.

"No-one knows what will happen," he says. "You are my first customer in three days."

Anas has just fulfilled an order for 60 chairs of brocade silk for the presidential palace. But many of his antiques and ornamental swords are covered in dust.

At the Omayad Stores for Oriental Crafts, Al-Ghalib Aleb says his family has owned this shop for almost a hundred years.

"Like a peasant who can't leave his land, a merchant can't leave his shop and craft," he says. "Governments come and go, but we're going to be here."

Aleb's home in Harasta has been destroyed, forcing him to live with his daughter. But he is determined to stick it out.

From his narrow balcony, he overlooks the ancient gate and Roman wall of Damascus. "Take as many pictures as you like," he says. "But tell your government to stop meddling in Syrian affairs. The economic embargo is hurting us, the people of Syria, not the government."

There have been no trains out of Damascus for more than a year. The international airport is often closed by gunfire. The only safe road out of the capital leads over the mountains to Lebanon and the Mediterranean.

The government army guards nine checkpoints on the way to the border and Lebanon's own Shia militia — Hezbollah, allied to Assad's forces — keeps watch over the neighbouring Sunni villages from the Lebanese frontier.

Like most cities under siege, the wounds of Damascus quickly become familiar.

No one any longer casts a glance at the ruined façade of the defense ministry, blasted away by a car bomb last year.

The outdoor restaurant of the city university, where 15 students were killed by a mortar shell in March, has been cleaned up. The fire-blackened wall of the military base above the Barada River, scene of a truck bombing last August, has been repainted.

But no paintbrush is likely to whitewash the human damage of this war.