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Reflections on Christmas in Damascus

DAMASCUS COUNTRYSIDE — “Why doesn’t Santa Claus come to our neighborhood and give us presents?” asks Sarah, a nine-year-old resident of Jdaidet Artouz in rural Damascus.

Written by Celine Ahmad Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

“Because you’re Sunni,” her father says.

Sarah doesn’t find her father’s answer strange. She is now used to the sectarian terms used during the Syrian conflict, even if she doesn’t fully understand their implications.

Once renowned for its diverse social and religious fabric, most of her town’s Sunni community fled after government forces allegedly massacred a number of them during fighting in August 2012.

On Christmas Eve, generators kept the village’s Christian neighborhood well-lit. The sound of music and people mingling drifted into the adjacent Muslim neighborhood, dark and silent. There, residents had no generators or celebrations, only a newly built wall that diverts traffic to military checkpoints meant, residents say, to snag members of the opposition.

Activists said the government ensures that diesel and gasoline are widely available in loyalist areas, like Jdaidet Artouz’s Christian district, while those supplies are scarce (and exorbitantly priced) in the Muslim area of the same town.

With residents protesting the erection of the wall, delegations from the government-established National Reconciliation Committee visited Syrian army officials to suggest taking down the divider. Sarah’s father said after much debate, it was decided that a hole would be created in the wall to allow foot traffic.

Local residents have since dubbed the opening the “hole of national reconciliation.”

‘There is No Christmas’

Sarah’s mother spends most of her days trying to phone her parents who live in the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

“There is no Christmas in Syria with the hundreds of dead every day,” she said. “What really pains me is the fact that others celebrate Christmas at a time when all I could do is think of my mother and father who are starving to death due to the siege against the camp.

“I no longer believe the saying that the Syrian people are one.”

While children in the Christian neighborhood eat sweets, Sarah’s father struggles to provide for his family, who were relegated to watching the celebrations from their balcony.

Jdaidat Artouz is a small town, but it is changing fast. Few people remain in the Muslim neighborhood, making Christians the new majority. Most of the Christians are members of the National Defense Forces (NDF), which is made up of local paramilitary groups organized by the government.

A Christian resident named Fahed, 25, claims he was once detained at an NDF checkpoint and tortured. He says they burned cigarette marks into his back, suspecting that he was an activist in the adjacent Muslim neighborhood.

‘Christians Have Been Considerate’

Christian Abu George, a 50-year-old father of three, said the joy of Christmas has not been the same and that he does not venture out of his neighborhood unless absolutely necessary. “Christmas came when Syria is going through a rough time. We try to overcome the harsh circumstances Syrians are now facing,” he said.

“This Christmas, we stayed inside — we decorated our homes and had Christmas dinner at home with our families for fear of renewed sectarian massacres. Some of us threw small home parties and danced to the music played.”

But he was neutral about the wall between Christian and Muslim neighborhoods. “We are a peaceful people. We don’t hurt anyone. All we want is safety to live a normal life,” he said.

Elias, 29, said the Roman Catholic Church located in the Christian area serves meals to internally displaced Syrians who have taken shelter in Jdaidat Artouz’s unused schools.

He said that Christians have toned down their celebrations this year out of respect for their fellow Syrians.

“There have been no decorated trees or red hats, and Santa Claus visited no more than a handful of families this year,” he said.

This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.

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