Stories of Syrians making their way to Europe as they flee from war have had plenty of media attention – but what about the people who have stayed behind? The BBC’s Lina Sinjab grew up in Damascus and has been home to see what life is like there now.
As I watched the tide of Syrians fleeing, heading for the safety of Europe, the urge to return to my lost country grew. I’ve been living in London for the past two years – and have now decided to move to Beirut to be closer to home.
I hadn’t been back to Damascus for more than a year and needed to revisit the city I knew.
Hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents have fled, and so Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited metropolis in the world, now feels half abandoned.
Most people I know have left – some ran for their own safety, some have died, and some are in prison. The educated middle class who couldn’t go about their work anymore took to the sea to reach Europe.
The few young men who stayed behind are hiding indoors, afraid of being conscripted into the army, and the women are working hard to earn a living. The people who remained are exhausted but they simply don’t want to become refugees. They prefer to hang on for as long as they can.
It is a bizarre situation.
The value of the Syrian pound has dropped against the dollar and prices have shot up. Those who used to earn the equivalent of $500 (£350) a month, enough for a decent living, now find their salaries are only worth $50 (£35) – hardly enough to last a week.
But the bustling old bazaar and spice market are still packed with people wandering around, enjoying the intact historical part of Damascus. The famous ice-cream shop Baghdash, in the middle of Hamideh market, is not short of customers.
Down by the Umayyad Mosque, men, women and children enjoy the sun and the sight of swifts flying over the minarets. Listening to them, you can hear that they’re from all over Syria, displaced people who’ve left their hometowns behind, and probably their houses in ruins.
The alleyways around the spice market are unusually quiet though. The owners of antiques shops used to have a steady flow of cash from tourists buying mother-of-pearl and brass furniture. Now they are just dusting their precious collections, waiting for the day when business will pick up again.
But in the richer areas of Damascus, more restaurants have opened – there are new cafes, even new bars, some with karaoke nights. Their dance floors heat up when DJs play songs in praise of President Bashar al-Assad, or his ally, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose fighters have helped Assad’s forces. During these songs, some people remain seated and continue drinking, a clear sign of dissent. I whisper to one of them: “Is playing this kind of music becoming the norm?” She sips her wine and says it’s an act of loyalty, which can buy you protection from the regime.
The DJ then puts on a song with a rather different message – I Will Survive – and everyone dances along. These are the survivors of the war, or at least the ones who have managed to escape its damage, by keeping their heads down, avoiding politics, or staying close to the government – they know there will be consequences if they turn against Assad.
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The sound of war is heard less often in the city centre these days and it has become easier to move around as some of the checkpoints have been removed. But the eastern suburb of Barzeh, once a hotspot for the early anti-Assad demonstrations, and then the scene of heavy fighting, feels like a ghost town.
Most of the buildings lie in ruins, though some rebels still live there. A truce allowed a few families to move out, and this is how Nada, an activist I knew long ago, managed to escape to Turkey. Her mother stayed behind – lonely in a tiny rented flat, she knits jumpers to earn some money.
The family of another old contact, Laila, makes daily visits to the local courthouse, trying to find out when she will be released from detention. She has been charged with acts of terrorism, simply because she was helping children in besieged Eastern Ghouta.
I managed to visit the besieged town of Tal, where my roots are, a 20-minute drive from the centre of Damascus. Many people in Tal revolted against the government – there has been fighting and bombing here. But now there is a sort of a truce – no more fighting, but it’s still hard to get food in and out.
But Tal shows how resilient people are. There is no sign of the war there – the families rebuilt and fixed the damage.
In the past, Tal was a home to nearly 100,000 people, but now, there are nearly a million there, displaced families who fled the war in neighbouring suburbs, mainly Eastern Ghouta.
The local community has welcomed them, there is no empty house, and every family has a place to live – even if it is an unfinished building with nylon sheets in place of doors and windows.
No-one goes to sleep hungry. And there are no armed men in sight. After the last government checkpoint on the road into Tal, civilians from the national reconciliation committee mind the streets.
But there are still pockets of extremism. “Every morning we hear that someone from IS killed someone from Nusra or the other way round,” one woman tells me.
I ask what keeps people there. “Where to go?” she says. “We are destined to die one day, better die at home than in exile.”
Between the two lives of Damascus – the safety of the centre and the danger of the suburbs – there are still many Syrians who are determined to stay put. Artists, actors, doctors, aid workers or simply state employees who don’t want to leave and feel they have a duty to keep working for their country. The secret is never to raise your voice, and to stay away from politics.
A recent truce, the result of international diplomacy, allowed Syrians a rare moment of calm.
Thousands took to the streets again, waving the green flag of revolution, defying both government forces and Islamists who are trying to enforce Sharia law. They chanted for freedom, just as they did five years ago. A clear demonstration that they want to carry on.
Russia has started withdrawing its troops, but that doesn’t mean the war will end any time soon. There’s a lot of speculation about what will happen next, with everyone clinging to any sign of hope that makes it worth staying in Syria.
If it weren’t for the fear, I would stay forever, and never leave again.
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