BEIRUT: “You wouldn’t recognize it anymore. Damascus has become a military zone,” says Maher, speaking via Skype from the Syrian capital late one night this week.
It’s a common refrain from those inside Damascus, communicating news from the capital to anxious family and friends who have already fled.
Speaking from abroad, displaced Syrian Lina echoes another common remark: “When we do go back, it won’t be the place that we remember. Damascus will never be the same again.”
A gradually heightened military presence in the capital – following a July bombing that killed three key members of President Bashar Assad’s so-called crisis cell – has now given way to what residents describe as almost complete lockdown ahead of Eid al-Adha.
A series of bombings attributed to opposition fighters targeting military complexes in Damascus over the last month culminated in a huge explosion at the police headquarters in the popular central square of Bab Touma Sunday, killing between 10 and 14 people.
The previously unthinkable destruction in the heart of the Old City – a popular meeting place, shopping district and postcard favorite – rattled nerves.
In the days that followed, residents say checkpoints were erected across the city overnight, some at intervals of only 200 meters, blocking the main roads and disrupting movement.
From behind the sandbagged checkpoints adorned with portraits of Assad, soldiers and paramilitary loyalists stop each and every vehicle, checking passengers’ identity cards.
“The checkpoints are everywhere. They are even in the Old City,” says a young university student, Salim, who like all those interviewed, asks that his real name not be used.
Traffic has become unbearable; the prices of food, taxi fares and fuel are skyrocketing, he says, and tempers are fraying. “You can’t get anywhere; it takes forever because you have to stop every 10-5 minutes while they check your IDs. People are getting angry.
“It’s suffocating,” Salim adds.
Talk of a negotiated cease-fire over the four-day Eid holiday starting Friday looms large. But with nightly gunbattles reverberating across Damascusfrom the southern suburbs where government warplanes and tanks are laying an unyielding siege on rebel-held pockets, anticipation gives way to dread.
“There is a real sense that something big is going to happen over Eid,” says another resident, Sami.
“I think they [the government] got scared when the FSA did not agree to the cease-fire. They obviously think there will be an attack, because the army is suddenly everywhere.”
Outside the Baath Party headquarters in the neighborhood of Mazraa and along other government buildings, concrete barricades have been erected, painted with the red, black and white Syrian flag that has now come to represent the Baath Party in contrast to the green, white and black opposition independence flag of the rebels.
Traffic along Al-Nasr Street – a main road leading to the Hamadieh souk, usually thriving in the days ahead of the Eid holiday – grinds to a halt in one direction as soldiers stationed at a concrete checkpoint look over each and every passing vehicle. In the opposite direction, the road is empty, with passage blocked further up the highway.
With the increased military presence comes added fear.
Hasan, an artist, describes seeing soldiers stop a car and drag a boy “not more than 18” out of a vehicle after he was stopped at a checkpoint close to central Midhat Basha in the Old City, and begin to beat him in broad daylight.
“They didn’t stop slapping him; over and over across the head,” he says.
When asked how he and other passers-by responded, Hasan says: “I thought they [the soldiers] were thugs, but I kept on walking ... People are in denial. They pretend not to see.”
Venturing out at night is dangerous, and the restaurants and cafes that have stayed open while others have closed or folded as times have gotten tougher are now shuttered in the evenings.
In the upper-middle class neighborhoods of Shalaan, Mezzeh and downtown, people still sip coffees and meet with friends by day. By evening, however, the usually bustling late night shopping districts are empty.
“By 6 p.m. you won’t find a shop open,” Salim says.
“It’s too dangerous to go out past 10 p.m. We spend time with friends and family indoors, smoking, drinking coffee and on the Internet.”
Late nights online and days spent sleeping are the new routine for many young people, who, with no work and nowhere else to go, describe idle lives.
“I woke up at 7 p.m. I am sleeping for an average of 14 hours a day,” says Hany, who recently lost his job as an administrative clerk at an oil refinery in the east of the country. The plant where he worked was shut down due to sanctions, and earlier this year clashes took place with rebel forces who stormed the complex.
“I woke up around 8 a.m. and thought I heard shelling again. Then I went back to sleep ... I have nothing to do. I am just waiting until it is over.”
Still, while the city gradually grinds to a halt, Eid al-Adha has provided a sense of respite for some.
Souks are busier during the day than in the past few weeks. “I’ve seen women shopping for food. The Syrian people still love life,” laughs Maher.
Added to that is another symptomatic difference in the city that was once determinately oblivious to the violence in the rest of Syria, residents say.
“The situation” is being talked about more freely in the police state, residents say. And blame for the disruption to the way of life falls squarely on one party in the conflict.
“When I can’t get to meet my family on time because I have been stuck at a checkpoint for an hour, I am angry,” says Mona, a mother and housewife. “Everyone is angry. We are angry at the government.”