Syrian daily life amid war a jumble of strange contrasts
Nelofer Pazira details strange experiences of a trip through Damascus and surrounding communities
(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.
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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
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.
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."
The other side, the Islamist and ISIS side, have their own displays of photos, but they take slicker propaganda pictures.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.)