On the Frontline in Damascus
Jobar is one of the many suburbs of Damascus, a place like many others in this city where nothing appears different: the same grey buildings, taxis speeding along recklessly, crowded cafés …and yet what distinguishes this neighbourhood of the capital from all the others is nothing other than what we associate most with Syria: war. The tranquility of the Damascus historic center with its churches, its magnificent palaces, the quiet streets which in the evening liven up with the music of the many night clubs easily distract visitors from all the bad thoughts associated with the conflict if it weren’t for this very neighborhood called Jobar, the thorn in the city’s side.
The distance between Bab Touma (the historic centre) and the terrorist frontline is approximately one and a half kilometres: this distance traces the border line between living peacefully and the daily tribulations of war, between hearing the bells chiming and the bombs thundering. Here every day mortars fall, myriads of mortars, and the inhabitants live with the noise of fire arms blasting from morning till evening. Truce only comes at sunset, when the armed militants stop shooting to avoid being located by government forces.
The buildings occupied by the army were once inhabited by neighbourhood residents complicating things even more: “Our next door neighbours are civilians. If we were to leave the terrorists would immediately come over and move into their houses,” one of the young soldiers serving in Jobar explains to us. And the expression “next door neighbour” is by no means an exaggeration: some even hang their washing opposite the building where the soldiers are stationed, the sound of mortar shells booming inside their homes every day to remind them, as if there were any need, that they are living a war despite being one step away from peace.
“The armed factions dig underground tunnels and fill them with explosives. We have detected excavations even beneath our post. They move underground, they hardly ever surface,” explains the commander on duty in what used to be a hospital under construction currently on the frontline. The officer takes us on a tour of the building’s different floors: every room is occupied by soldiers who relentlessly scour the area opposite them. We glance over the protection barrier to admire the Jobar “inhabited” by the rebels, a ghost city out of a horror film: deserted roads, street lamps knocked to the ground, craters everywhere and the concrete skeletons of what used to be homes.
As you might expect this neighbourhood also has schools and hospitals which however, unlike other areas of the city, have had to take precautions to prevent massacres: windows are shielded with sandbags while high barbed-wire fencing and entry guards stop strangers from approaching. “We are not afraid and we have no intention of leaving here,” says a neighbourhood resident, “We will not let terrorists change our ways.”
The city certainly seems determined not to give up its customs, not even in these times. Nobody seems to mind the Christmas decorations. Young girls wearing headscarves take selfies in front of adorned trees and lit up public gardens. It seems nobody wants to interrupt this pleasant moment of tranquility or can be bothered to discuss whether the city streets should be decorated or not. Most shops have a nativity scene or a glittering fir tree to remind everyone it’s a holiday and help any passers-by even for just one minute, forget that war is only a few steps away.