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An area controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen through a sniper's scope held for the photographer by a Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo's Al-Ezaa neighbourhood September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Aref Hretani
Image: Reuters

Snipers and shisha

Alois Berger / bk
September 14, 2013

The fighting in Syria continues. For many people there the war has become part of an everyday routine, and some manage to lead a surprisingly normal life - but terrible suffering is often just a street away.


"There is no problem here," Nelly Najar said on the telephone from the Syrian capital, Damascus. "I'm just coming in from work, and now we're going out. To smoke a shisha somewhere." The shisha - a water-pipe - is a synonym for absolute relaxation in many Arab countries. It means that everything is normal in this part of Damascus - no shooting, no violence on the streets - none of what the Western media reports every day from other parts of the Syrian capital.

That is all perfectly possible, said Ahmad Hissou, DW's Syria editor. When lines of communication are open, Hissou makes daily calls and sends e-mails to people in Syria. Phone networks are particularly affected in the suburbs of Damascus and other rebel-controlled areas of the country - as is the electricity grid, which sometimes goes dark for hours or even days at a time.

People walk at a street in old Damascus, September 12, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri
Life is almost normal in some parts of DamascusImage: Reuters

Different worlds, 50 meters apart

Hissou said he's heard a lot of stories from Damascus that are different from the picture painted by Najar. Stories of bombings, snipers, long lines in front of bakeries, and empty vegetable markets. But he said the side that Najar experienced also exists, "They are completely different worlds - often just 50 meters apart."

Martin Glasenapp, who recently traveled through Syria for the aid organization Medico International, agreed: "If you live in areas where the majority of people are loyal to the government, then you can live a relatively peaceful life."

In the quarters of Damascus that are heavily guarded by government troops, the schools, public authorities, the hospitals all function almost like there wasn't a civil war raging in other parts of the city. "You can buy anything you like," Najar said. "It's just got a lot more expensive - everything costs about three times as much as before."

Refugees try to get into safe zones

But even the most prosperous districts of Damascus are not entirely unaffected by the war. Refugees are forcing their way into them from all parts of the country.

"The hotels are overflowing," said Glasenapp. "There are a lot of internal refugees in these areas." There are currently 6 million Syrian refugees - in a country with a total population of 23 million - but so far only a third of these have crossed the borders to other countries.

Rubble and debris litter the street following an explosion in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, early on August 7, 2013. UN weapons inspectors tasked with looking into claims of chemical weapons use in Syria are 'completing their preparations' in The Hague before heading to Damascus, the United Nations said. Photo: ABDULLAH AL-SHAM/AFP/Getty Images
But the rebel-controlled suburbs are under constant threat of bombingImage: Abdullah Al-Sham/AFP/Getty Images

The rest seek out safe zones within the country, such as Najar's neighborhood. A few days ago, many people there feared that their proximity to the government would prove life-threatening - when it seemed as though the US would bombard the government buildings Damascus at any moment. Suddenly the wealthy citizens of Damascus were in the same boat as the refugees. Those that could afford to, took their families to neighboring countries. As many as 30,000 people from these prosperous districts are thought to have gone to Jordan alone.

Najar was also considering it, but has seen the situation in her neighborhood improve as the United States backed away from military intervention. "Ever since the attack was postponed, things are better," she said.

Constant fear of sudden attacks

But the situation is very different just a few streets away, Glasenapp said. "People who live in the suburbs, especially the Sunni suburbs, the areas that are being fought over, where a real civil war is going on, they live under the permanent threat of being bombed or becoming the victim of snipers."

These circumstances are not just confined to Damascus: the whole country has become a patchwork of zones either being attacked by the government or the rebels. And there are other regions - such as along the coast - that are relatively calm. There, the war is mainly being felt through its drastic economic consequences: unemployment and vital shortages.

"The supply routes are cut off, for example in oil production in the Kurdish north-east," said Glasenapp. "The oil sources are in the hands of the Kurdish militias, but they can't produce any petroleum, because the central refineries are on the coast."

Police - or religious police

But overall, Glasenapp said he was astonished that there have not been more dramatic food shortages in Syria - his only explanation is that local communities are still functioning.

A butcher cuts meat in his shop in the Old City of Damascus, Syria on September 08, 2013. Photo: Martin Lejeune
There may soon be greater food shortagesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"People are working together to keep the bakeries going, and to organize everything that you need for everyday life," he said, adding that the situation is becoming increasingly difficult. "We are seeing the first cases of malnutrition, but this society is still trying hard to stick things out together."

The longer the fighting continues, the more difficult it will become for the Syrian people. Not only because the economy is growing weaker, but also because the advancing rebels are coming more and more under the control of radical religious groups. Some estimate that as many as 40 percent of the 100,000 armed rebels are now radical Islamists.

Glasenapp said the consequences of this for people living in one small town - of 50,000 inhabitants - near the Turkish border, where 50 different rebel units are now stationed. "Even the local citizens can't set up a police force," he said, "because radical religious groups want to have a religious police."

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