DAMASCUS: Just as Leen Arbid entered the front gate of the Damascus Opera House, a potent symbol of the Assad family’s decades-long authoritarian rule over Syria, she heard a deafening bang. And then, everything went black.
The drama student was going to her classes that bright Sunday morning when a mortar shell fired from rebel positions on the outskirts of the Syrian capital struck the pavement inside the complex yard, next to an entrance door used by performers.
“Suddenly at 8:15, a mortar hit 5 meters from me,” the petite 24-year-old said. “I was injured and fell to the ground unconscious, bleeding. I didn’t feel any pain.”
Shrapnel from the shell pierced her right leg. Five other of her classmates were also wounded, and two were killed in the explosion, which shattered windows on the building and broke glass on a board that advertised a Chopin piano concert that was to be held that day, April 6.
Mortar attacks have become daily occurrence in the Syrian capital of some 2 million, often killing more people than this attack. But the strike last month against the opera house resonated much more loudly through the Damascus community. It was a direct hit against the Assad family’s cherished creation.
Hafez Assad was only a few years in power in 1970 when he laid the foundation stone of the Assad House for Culture and Arts.
Hard economic times and the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war stalled construction. The opera was scheduled to open in 1999, but was again delayed by an electrical fire that gutted the main hall.
After Hafez Assad’s death in 2000, it fell on his son and successor, Bashar, to finish the job. In 2004, he opened the opera house with his British-born wife, Asma, amid great fanfare and fireworks.
The sprawling complex includes a large opera hall, two smaller theaters and acting, singing and ballet schools, offering classical concerts and works by Arab playwrights. Built with a mix of Western and Arab architecture and decorated with paintings and sculptures by Syrian artists, it expresses the Assad family’s vision of Damascus as the Arab capital of culture and politics, with them at the helm as visionaries and reformers.
The efforts paid off. Damascus was chosen the cultural capital of the Arab world in 2008, hosting a yearlong series of theatrical and musical events with much celebration
But the outbreak of the uprising in 2011 – now a civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people and left much of the country in ruins – changed all that.
Amid the conflict, international performers stopped coming to the opera house. Many musicians and actors joined some 2.5 million Syrians who fled the country. Others were blocked by fighting from traveling to Damascus to perform. Several died in the fighting.
The intensity of rebel mortar attacks against the capital appears to be increasing since Assad set the presidential polls for June. The attacks are indiscriminate, hitting residential areas, including schools, businesses and hospitals alike. Last week, mortar shells slammed into a school in central Damascus, killing more than 14 people, including children, and wounding 85 others in one of the deadliest mortar attacks on the capital since the conflict began in 2011.
The death toll and damage is far lower than that in other, opposition held urban centers, which have been battered by army warplanes, heavy artillery and street fighting.
Still, concerts and plays have continued, although more sporadically and with a skeleton staff.
“It is not easy to play when you hear every day that people are dying, children losing their lives and bombs hitting the opera house,” symphony orchestra conductor Missak Baghboudarian said. “But music is life ... it brings people together.”
The opera complex, situated on the downtown Umayyad Square next to the Defense Ministry, the headquarters of the dreaded secret police and the state-run TV station, was hit several times by rebel mortars and car bombs during the war. The strikes were apparently aimed against Assad’s centers of power, rather than the opera itself.
“This makes people afraid to come,” opera director Lama Sallouh said. “But fortunately, it does not last too long. Maybe they stop coming for a week or two, but then they come back. It makes us feel alive, and reminds us of our country before the crisis.”