London, Asharq – Al-Awsat – At a checkpoint located near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, on the highway between central Damascus and the suburb of Qudssaya, a female driver tries to overtake a long line of cars. One of the soldiers at the checkpoint orders her vehicle to stop, and when he sees that all passengers inside are women, he smiles sardonically and in a stern voice tells the female driver: “Never try to bypass a checkpoint; although you are women, we have orders to shoot.”
The woman quickly apologizes and informs the soldier that she did not mean to bypass the checkpoint without permission, but the queue of cars was so long that if she waited her turn she would be late arriving home to her neighborhood, located in a tense Damascus district. She claims that it would be very difficult to enter this neighborhood safely so late at night. The soldier examines her identity card and replies: “I am saying this for your own safety. I hope you will not repeat this mistake again”. The car is then allowed to pass through the checkpoint and all passengers thank God for their safety, agreeing that “going out after Iftar [after breaking the Ramadan fast] in Damascus has become very dangerous “.
In the Syrian capital, going out after 10 o’clock in the evening has become a venture only to be undertaken by those who have to. No one can guess when and where clashes may erupt. Certain neighborhoods and suburbs often become tense and volatile late in the evening, and remain so until the hours of dawn.
Last Saturday evening, a young man was hit by 10 rounds of gunfire on the Al-Rabwah road. One bullet grazed his head while the remaining nine struck several parts of his body but did not cause fatal damage. He was not shot because he was trying to bypass a checkpoint, but rather because he was trying to escape from a clash that suddenly erupted in front of him. He tried to reverse his car in the opposite direction of the traffic, a move that aroused the suspicions of the checkpoint soldiers who subsequently opened fire. These tragic incidents are being compounded by the fact that there is a lack of people available at night to assist the wounded. Perhaps this young man was fortunate; a passing taxi driver dared to stop and rescue him from the gunfire. However, the government hospital refused to admit him and there were no emergency doctors present in the private clinic, so he continued to bleed until the morning.
His relative recounted the story to Asharq Al-Awsat. He said that the young man “made the mistake of going out after 10 o’clock; and then his second mistake was to try and escape by changing the direction of his car”. The young man’s relative went on to say that since checkpoints are spread throughout the city, and given the absence of security, he has started to leave his car at home and take public transport instead. He always carries his identity card in his pocket, and he and his family have stopped going out at night except within the confines of their neighborhood.
He added that about one month ago, a young man was killed in his neighborhood, which is full of checkpoints. He left his home late at night in a drunken state and drove his car in a very erratic manner; hence raising suspicions at the first checkpoint. The soldiers signaled for him to stop and when he carried on they opened fire. This prompted the young man to panic and drive his car in a manic fashion, drawing the attention of all neighboring checkpoints as soldiers pursued him with gunfire. In less than 10 minutes, the whole neighborhood erupted as if it were a war zone. The car came to a halt after being hit by hundreds of bullets, the young man was killed, and several shops in the neighborhood were damaged.
The capital Damascus is no longer the city that does not sleep, as it was called in the past, especially during the month of Ramadan when souks would reopen after Iftar and become bustling centers of activity as the Tarawih prayer approached. This year, the mood in the city has changed; it is adjusting to the security conditions. Venturing outside has become an activity fraught with danger as neighborhood checkpoints increase day after day, dividing the city into isolated sectors.
In order to travel within a single district of the city, one may be required to show an identity card at several checkpoints. There is a security branch or military outpost in every neighborhood, with all nearby roads cut off whilst roads leading up to them are planted with various fixed and mobile checkpoints. Soldiers, security elements, and fully equipped Shabiha militiamen are everywhere.
Now the residents of the capital are becoming used to these checkpoints, and are beginning to exchange advice and safety precautions. For instance: Avoid provoking the soldiers; keep calm and controlled regardless of any form of intimidation; learn to hide your fear of guns, especially if one is drawn in your face or if the soldier seems careless with his weapon. The most important piece of advice is: If you come across a checkpoint at the end of the road, do not turn back or change direction.
This advice and much more forms part of a daily “map” passed by word of mouth, revealing the location of checkpoints and the measures that the soldiers are taking. People report whether or not the roads are accessible, and suggest alternative routes. All this information is then posted on the internet or conveyed over the phone minute by minute, along with other instructions. For instance, youths are advised to carry their compulsory military service identity cards because checkpoints in certain areas will ask for them, and whoever cannot produce the required documents will be detained.
In some other areas, people are being advised to carry their home title deeds, rent contracts, electricity and water bills or anything that can prove their place of residence in a particular area, because mobile checkpoints often scrutinize the residents of certain neighborhoods and their visitors. Often these checks are spontaneous, dependent upon the current security conditions and the pursuit of those who are wanted in certain districts.
Bizarrely, people who were born in certain regions of Syria or Damascus are being warned against travelling into specific districts or areas in the capital city. The escalation of tension in the al-Midan neighborhood, for example, transformed everyone born there into suspects, and so they were warned not to pass certain checkpoints close to the Republican Palace in the al-Muhajirin neighborhood. Prior to that, people born in the Baba Amr district of Homs were subjected to harassment at every checkpoint in Damascus without exception, and then this level of scrutiny was extended to the entire Homs population, along with the people of Idlib and so on. No Syrian citizen is safe from suspicion, even if he is loyal to the regime. However, the level of the harassment and searches rises and falls in accordance with the general alert level.
Ahmad al-Humsi left the al-Bayyadah neighborhood in Homs a few months ago and settled in the center of the capital, Damascus. He said: “After Iftar, the neighborhood where I live turns into a ghost town. Yesterday, my family and I felt bored as if we were in detention. I decided to go to the café; however I felt intimidated by the dark streets, completely empty except for security forces “. Ahmad laughed as he went on to say: “Since I am from Homs, where the people are said to be insane, I started chatting with the security forces and the Shabiha for fun. One of them had a motorcycle, and I dared to ask him to drive me to a nearby café. He did not refuse; it seemed he was bored too. The café was also empty with not a single car in sight on the street, so he drove me back”.
During the month of Ramadan, the alert level in the capital rose when fierce clashes erupted in several neighborhoods including al-Midan, Kafr Susah, Basatin al-Razi, al-Mazzah, al-Qaboun and Barzeh. The destruction and killing in these neighborhoods has transformed Damascus during Ramadan into a sad and somber place with no sign of festivities, as if the whole city is under house arrest.
The mosques are no longer packed with worshippers coming from other districts to perform the Tarawih prayer. The worshippers are restricted to a few residents of the local neighborhood, so that the fully equipped security elements surrounding the mosques can outnumber the worshippers and impose a permanent state of alert. The festive tents of Ramadan have disappeared from the Damascus streets, and Iftar visits now typically last less than two hours and are conducted mostly in the same neighborhood.
Damascus is gloomy and desolate; every now and then the silence is punctured by the sound of explosions, artillery and rocket fire pounding the districts surrounding the city, as well as the noise of clashes within its neighborhoods. Even the Musaharati [the drummer who wakes people at dawn during Ramadan] is absent except in a few quiet neighborhoods, after his voice would be lost in the din of festivities and crowded souks in past years.