World·In Depth

Syrian daily life amid war a jumble of strange contrasts

Journalist and documentary maker Nelofer Pazira details the strange experiences of a recent trip through Damascus and surrounding Syrian communities.

Nelofer Pazira details strange experiences of a trip through Damascus and surrounding communities

Young residents of Damascus await the departure of the capital city's only working train. It runs once a week for families who want a day out – singing and eating in the single carriage that runs just four kilometres up the track to the city's front line and back. (Nelofer Pazira)

(Afghan-Canadian journalist and filmmaker Nelofer Pazira has been a regular visitor to Syria. Working on a documentary this summer she travelled more than 1,000 kilometres along Syria's front lines. Listen to her CBC radio/Ideas audio documentary about the experience.)


The port city of Lattakia looks like a holiday resort. The swimsuits of young women and their families are dots of colour along the beach on the Mediterranean shore. One of the restaurants in the hotel gives a panoramic view of the sea and a couple of fishing boats bobbing on the waves.

In the hotel lobby is a Syrian woman in her late twenties. She has travelled from Damascus to get away from the war for a day. "Just to have a break, to go for a swim," she says.

Journalist and filmmaker Nelofer Pazira travelled more than 1,000 kilometres along Syria's front lines this summer.
Could this be Syria? Syria with its four-year war and quarter of a million dead? 

Conflict creates such contrasts. People struggle to live a life of peace while people die violently close by.

Just 40 kilometres from Lattakia's peaceful bay is one of the country's frontlines, on the edge of Idlib province where the Syrian army is losing ground to ISIS advances. The sun stays high above us as we drive east towards the front, where the beauty of the sea gives way to smashed villages and burned cars.

Every kilometre of this territory is a battlefield; every village has changed hands several times between rebel fighters and the government army.

Most residents have already fled their homes. Their abandoned houses and overgrown gardens are military positions.

Wheat fields and white flies

Two T-62 Russian-made tanks defend Syria’s front-line trenches in Idlib province close to the Orontes River. (Nelofer Pazira)
We stop in a place just south of Jisr al-Shughour. It's the last Syrian army post. Two rusting tanks and a pick-up lie behind this frontline, along with uniformed men, still fighting to win this war.

On the surrounding hilltops just 300 metres away, invisible to the naked eye, are ISIS fighters.

The wheat fields hide the bodies of both Syrian soldiers and rebels. White flies swarm around us, feasting on the decaying, unburied bodies. Mortars have set fire to the hillside undergrowth. There are constant gun battles and suicide attacks. 

Driving along the frontline, where smoke from an incoming mortar turns the blue sky gray, I notice a park filled with missile launchers — all Russian-made. They are tucked away behind a line of evergreens, and at the far end of a dark green lake where the mountain overshadows the valley, Syrian soldiers are swimming.

Two Syrian girls, unfazed by the soldiers and Syrian Army military truck close behind them, pose to have their photo taken. (Nelofer Pazira)
This is no sea-side party like Lattakia, these are the tired Syrian conscripts who have lost many comrades in the recent battles. Bashar al-Assad's government won't admit it officially, but his army officers talk of 56,000 military dead since the civil war began four years ago. The government has most of the population under its control, but the rebels hold most of Syria's territory. 

An army colonel acknowledges the huge military casualties.

"I lost 26 of my men in a single attack on an al-Qaeda base," he says. "They came out of the doors of a house wearing suicide belts and blew themselves up among my men."

Fires burn where rebels’ shells have set alight to the mountainside above Syrian fortification in Idlib province. (Nelofer Pazira)
Driving through Syria's towns on the way to Damascus there are thousands of photographs of young men pasted on the walls and above the shops. In another world, they might be election candidates. But they are the faces of Syria's civil war – or at least part of it. Almost all are soldiers, "martyrs" they are called by their families and friends. Alawite Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians, some in uniform, others in civilian clothes, but all part of the Syrian army.

The other side, the Islamist and ISIS side, have their own displays of photos, but they take slicker propaganda pictures.

Damascus

As we near Damascus, our car has to make way for a long convoy — all military hardware, mostly covered by tarps, but failing to conceal the outline of artillery, machine-guns and rocket launchers. Brand new equipment, a gift from the Russians. 

Innocence amid war: A girl in her home village after it had been recaptured by the Syrian army. (Nelofer Pazira)
The old city of Damascus itself, however, appears like old times. The streets are filled with people, shops are open, cars and taxis crowd the streets.

For a moment, in the shade of the ancient Umayyad Mosque, it's almost possible to forget the war, even though the marble floor and the mosaic walls incorporate a history of battles and bloody occupations. Noon prayers are called and the imam asks visitors to speak only in a low voice.

A young girl next to me smiles warmly. I ask her name, and Hana says she comes here to find tranquility; it gives her a sense of calm to see so many others praying. She comes with school friends or with her mother. She has exams coming up and prays she will do well.

And what about the war, I ask? 

At the Syrian-Lebanese border, a Syrian unit defends its position with a heavy machinegun mounted in the back of a pickup truck. (Nelofer Pazira)
The teenage face turns wiser, controlling her tears. "My father was killed," she says.

The family used to live in Sakba, a suburb of Damascus. One evening they heard the sound of gunshots, and her father went out to the yard. A rocket hit and killed him on the spot.

The family now lives with relatives, and Hana looks to the future. 

"I want to do well in my school and have a better life," Hana says. "My father wanted me to study and achieve good things."

She smiles and gives me her Facebook name; she wants us to be friends.

Then above us, low-flying fighter jets race through the sky.

We could be in Toronto

On the only operating train in Damascus, young Syrian women clap to music piped over the car's PA system on their journey to the outskirts of the city and back. (Nelofer Pazira)
I walk past the East Gate, the remains of a Roman wall, and find a row of shoe shops.

My old sandals are broken, and a young man finds the size I need. As I try them on, I notice another young woman on the bench, dressed in a bright blue head-cover, tight body-fitting jeans and a matching blue top.  She is trying gold-coloured high-heeled sandals.  

"I think the silver colour might be better," she says. "It's the new fashion, isn't it? This kind of style?" 

I nod. The silver is better.

"My cousin's engagement is coming up so I think this will be a good choice," she says. We could be in Paris or Toronto.

If this sounds surreal, consider the capital's only surviving railway train. It runs once a week for families who want a day out – singing and eating in the single carriage that runs just four kilometres up the track to the city's front line and back.

    Nadia is in her fourth-year, studying economics at Damascus University. "Although there are explosions once in a while, life is still OK in Damascus," she says.

    Nadia is making the rail trip today to "bring back good memories of the time when she was a child and they used to take the train."

    Piped-in pop music blasts through the carriage. Even the driver joins in the dances at the little terminus.

    This is how they survive the war in Damascus.


    ​Nelofer Pazira's radio documentary The Road to Damascus takes listeners through the streets of this ancient city — unyielding and vital, but overcrowded, tired and in danger of destruction in Syria's civil war. Listen to her CBC radio/Ideas documentary.)


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