Parallel Worlds in Damascus: Mazzeh and Yarmouk
By: Marah Mashi
Published Friday, November 30, 2012
Residents of two Damascus neighborhoods live in strikingly different worlds. While one neighborhood lives under a semblance of normality where even traffic laws are followed, the other is plagued by sniper fire and shelling.
Damascus – In a time of violence and death, people in Syria have started adapting to new ways of life.
In the Damascus neighborhood of Mazzeh, traffic along the express route is taken as one indicator of the general security situation in the city. If there’s an escalation in fighting, traffic grinds to a halt. When calm returns, the roads become gridlocked as most traffic is diverted to a few streets in Damascus that are considered relatively safe.
Vehicles in Mazzeh still stop at traffic lights, and traffic policemen have retained their authority, continuing to enforce traffic laws whenever they can. Although the area has been targeted by a large number of bombings, people still maintain a modicum of respect for order.
Samir, a resident of the neighborhood, believes Mazzeh came under attack because it is home to many regime supporters, in addition to being a strategic area surrounded by a large number of military units. This latter point, according to Samir, explains the reassurance felt by the residents despite the recent escalation and renewed tension in the area.
Talal, a high school student from Mazzeh, says that people are too afraid to leave their homes, and are very cautious when they have to run errands, pointing out that the street is often completely deserted after 8 pm.
“People in the area still observe the speed limit and safety instructions, and report any suspicious packages, vehicles, or persons,” he adds.
Towards Arnous Square and Abu Rummaneh, most roads leading into the various neighborhoods of the capital have been closed and diverted. Despite the fact that this has caused huge traffic jams and widespread frustration, no one can disregard public order when it comes to waiting at checkpoints or complying with the traffic laws.
Nevertheless, a few cars can still be seen traveling at excessive speeds on highways in Damascus, perhaps to escape any possible danger during the late hours of the night.
By contrast, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp has been experiencing very bad traffic jams, particularly along the camp’s relatively safe main street, all the way to Loubieh market. But life there follows different rules.
Visiting the camp is risky. The street separating the neighborhood of al-Tadamun from Yarmouk is full of snipers who target anyone entering or leaving the area, even the young men who come to volunteer with the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA).
For this reason, many cars tend to cross this street at insane speeds, disregarding traffic lights. Some cars even drive on the sidewalk in order to escape the bullets and shells. Traffic police are largely absent from the area.
Mohammad is a member of the Popular Committees in the camp. These committees sprung up in many parts of Syria after the crisis began, and consist of armed loyalists seeking to maintain order in their area. The committees also sometimes take part in operations with the regular army.
“Our job is to protect our neighborhood from the attempts to drag it into the political game in Syria,” Mohammad told Al-Akhbar.
He pointed out the boundaries of the safe zone in the Yarmouk camp, which is surrounded by al-Tadamun, Hajar al-Aswad, and al-Midan – “hot” neighborhoods that are often both the source and the target of shelling.
For Mohammad, taking up arms is an act of self defense. He says al-Thalatheen Street in the camp often sees incidents of kidnapping, sniper fire, and shelling. Departing the neighborhood through this street is extremely dangerous.
Anyone standing at the last security checkpoint can clearly see the magnitude of devastation in the Hajar al-Aswad area. Since the checkpoint is located at a point of direct contact with this hot spot, everyone expects shells to rain down from the sky at any moment.
The residents of Damascus still pay taxes, stop at traffic lights, and go to their jobs. Perhaps this is a sign that the state continues to have some authority and the ability to enforce laws; or maybe it is an indication of a deep desire by the residents of certain areas to maintain a semblance of normality.
Nevertheless, the authority of the state and the law diminishes proportionally with increasing violence in the country. This was evident after a shell fell in the vicinity of al-Jalaa Stadium in Mazzeh, and the subsequent firefights that erupted. In the panic that ensued, those who were able to flee by car did not bother with speed limits.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.