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The Syria I Knew: Total War Comes to Damascus

Dina Shahrokhi is the research assistant at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Written by Dina Shahrokhi Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Syria’s largest cities have become battlegrounds, whole neighborhoods have been razed by bombing campaigns and schools and hospitals have become arms shelters.

While these devastating examples provide the most vivid images of war in Syria, very little has been written about life outside of the battlefields.

From September 2011 through May 2012, I lived in Damascus. There, the government did not shell entire neighborhoods, and there were few major battle sites in the middle of the city.

For these reasons, most analysts say that Damascus was largely “isolated” from the conflict in Syria. It is absolutely true that the capital has so far avoided much of the heavy fighting that has destroyed entire cities, but it has hardly remained untouched.

Life in Damascus was relatively calm until the end of December, two days before Christmas, when the first suicide bombs of the conflict shook the ground. A few weeks later, another bomb exploded near a mosque that I had walked by only 24 hours earlier.

In February, an explosion targeted a military bus near the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, where the UN agency with which I was working regularly distributed aid.

And so it became a monthly trend – an unexpected attack that would kill around 50 civilians and injure more than one hundred.

While the casualties paled in comparison to the death counts in front line cities Homs and Aleppo, the constant fear of the unknown began to permeate life in Damascus.

I stopped taking the UN buses to work, avoided busy movie theaters and had panic attacks every time I got caught in traffic at a busy intersection – would there be a suicide attack?

Many nights, we all went to bed to the sound of gunfire. While there was no official curfew, everyone knew that they needed to get indoors by 10 p.m. to stay clear of stray bullets.

The economic impact of the nation’s conflict dealt a beating to every ‘Damascene.’ In my time in the capital, food prices skyrocketed, heating oil (used for cooking and warming our houses) was only sold on the black market at double the cost, and the Syrian pound’s value halved.

These costs, made worse by international sanctions on crude oil, hit the poorest classes the hardest as they struggled to keep their families warm and fed.

The government enacted daily electricity cuts to limit costs and conserve the city’s scarce fuel supply. These cuts left us in the dark and cold for up to six hours per day if you lived in my central neighborhood, or 12 if you lived in a suburb just a 10-minute drive away.

The cuts crippled businesses that couldn’t afford generators to keep their lights on. The times for these cuts varied by week and often by day, making it impossible to work around the handicap.

Almost in defiance, the people of Damascus came together during difficult times. Families and neighbors would host relatives and friends from war-torn areas or from homes with daily electricity cuts.

Only minutes after a bombing, civilians in the area would rush to the scene with no hesitation to help care for the wounded and their families.

They lived their lives. Bombs never stopped people from going to work every day, especially as each paycheck became more critical with increased market prices. People continued to host large family dinners on Fridays, per Syrian tradition, and by March and April Damascus’s residents stared returning to the busy souqs (markets) and taking their families to restaurants for special occasions.

The bravery of the Syrians around me inspired me — I started to get back onto UN buses, a target of suicide bombers, during my final two months.

While Damascus may seem isolated from the conflict, no one has been spared. Rather, the people of this city refuse to allow a war to change the way they live their lives. While the international community continues to debate over steps that need to be taken to mitigate the conflict, the people in Damascus and across the country are coming together at all levels to help their Syrian brothers.

The truth is that Syria is undergoing total war – a war that permeates beyond the battlefield and affects the lives of every individual and family living in the country. When we talk about the costs of this war, we have to think beyond the numbers. In a way, everyone in Syria is a casualty of war.

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