Damascus Struggles for Normalcy

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People look at damage at al-Midan neighbourhood in Damascus 23 July 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Shaam News Network - Handout)

By: Anas Zarzar

Published Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The prices of food items and diesel are on the rise and the situation in Damascus has not improved despite the decline in military clashes.

Damascus - Residents of the capital and the surrounding areas are living in chaos as the security and “economic” situation deteriorates. The attack and retreat battles that are waged around the clock between security units and the Syrian army against armed groups from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have turned many residential areas into real battlegrounds.

The aim of these battles is to seize control of these neighborhoods and add them to the list of “liberated” areas, according to FSA discourse, or to declare them “safe areas free of terrorist groups,” according to the official narrative. Between the two narratives, many Syrian families chose to pack what they could and stock up on basic goods and head to safer areas, away from the battlegrounds and sites of military confrontations.

Abu Mustafa (44 years old), a resident of the Moadamiyeh area located 10 kilometers south of Damascus, tells us “a stray bullet hit our neighbor’s balcony last night. We spent the night under our beds, not knowing the source of the bullets or where they would land next time. I will not wait for our turn to come tonight.”

Today in Damascus, a cab driver proves to be a more credible and realistic source of news than all the newspapers and satellite channels put together. “On the southern highway, I was stopped by a Syrian security checkpoint and searched, then I was stopped again by a FSA checkpoint 300 meters away, then I was stuck for over half an hour in a battle between the two checkpoints with bullets flying over my head,” says Shadi Abu Sabaa (37 years old) from Drousha.

He adds: “We are the only ones paying the price for this struggle for control and dominance on the ground between the regular army and the free army. How long will we live like this? If the cab I drive gets hit, its owner will charge me for the damage. I don’t earn quarter of what I used to earn before these events started.”

We asked Abu Sabaa what he thinks of the various media outlets that report on Syria given that he spends his day driving around the streets and suburbs of the capital. He says: “Each one of these satellite channels covers the news and presents it in accordance with the policy imposed by its management. The official Syrian media insists that the situation is under control and talks about restoring security to the way it was, while the other stations exaggerate the victories of the FSA on the ground.”

The cab driver charged us double the regular fare recorded on the meter. He says: “There is no gas in the country... You’re lucky you found a taxi under the shelling and the bullets and in this danger.”

Although Syrian officials have appeared on state-run media channels to reassure citizens of the availability of “gas and diesel in amounts that exceed the country’s needs, in addition to all the basic foodstuffs,” the scene on the ground is of unprecedented congestion in front of gas stations and car queues extending over hundreds of meters.

“In his first decree Minister of Internal Trade, Qadri Jamil, raised the price of diesel by three Syrian pounds, making its official price 23 Syrian pounds (SP) ($0.37), while its price in the black market rose from SP 35 ($0.54) to SP45 ($0.70). Thank you opposition communist minister for this gift during Ramadan,” a bus driver tells Al-Akhbar as he waits for his turn to fill his fuel tank.

Not far from the gas station, hundreds gathered in front of private and government-run bakeries to get double rations of bread. “We do not know what is going to happen in the coming days. We are used to the fact that our official media covers up the truth. I used to watch the protests from my window when the events first started, while the Syrian satellite channel would deny the existence of any protests,” says one man standing in front of a bakery..

His friend says: “I have a very big family and I have to get bread and other basic foodstuffs in large quantities out of fear that it might not be available soon.”

The Syrian government’s decision to raise the price of diesel coincided with the start of Ramadan and the escalation in violence and armed confrontations in all Syrian cities and provinces. This led to a huge hike in the prices of produce and food items.

“I spent many hours today looking for a can of milk for my child. Most stores are closed and the rest have been emptied. As if we are in a real war. We used to look at Homs as a disaster area and we tried to help its residents as much as we could. Today, it appears that all of Syria has become a disaster area,” says another man.

An employee at a supermarket shouts to the tens of people gathered in front of him, saying: “Everything is available, believe me. You don’t realize that you’re helping to create a crisis that is completely unwarranted.” A huge truck filled with all kinds of produce, fruits and food items parked in front of the supermarket’s warehouse. Crowds gathered as people bought more stuff than they need while the prices are reasonable, unlike in the local markets where prices have multiplied.

“The 40 years that Syrians have lived under emergency law have not helped them understand the nature of crises and internal problems resulting from war or an economic crisis. Today, everyone thinks about themselves and are indifferent to others,” says Ahmad (26 years old), a college student.

He adds: “Yesterday, my friends and I tried to buy some stuff to help the displaced people at one of the schools in Sihnaya. I cannot describe the scene for you. The markets are empty. We could not find anything to buy for the displaced who are hungry and in need. Who is responsible for the state we are in, the merchants or the citizens or the regime itself?” wonders the angry young man, verbalizing what is on the minds of the majority of Syrians today.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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