Independent European Daily Express, UK
May 12 2014

Monday, May 12, 2014 - 17:24Inter Press Service

DAMASCUS, May 12 (IPS) - On a weekday afternoon, the Old City of
Damascus heaves with people, cars, motorcycles, bikes. Markets are
crowded with locals bartering with merchants for the heaps of spices,
flowery perfumes, clothing, and most things one needs, abundant in
the Hamidiyah market.

At the end of the historic Roman Via Recta (Straight Street), boys
play football amidst ancient columns.

Syria, in its fourth year of a devastating foreign-backed armed
attempt to overthrow the government, is somehow still pulsing with
life and hope.

In the narrow back lanes of the Old City, couples walk hand in hand,
older men greet each other with broad smiles and a kiss on each cheek.

Music wafts from open doors of ancient homes, their courtyards bursting
with greenery. A milkman delivers milk from large tins strapped to
his bicycle.

But the spacious old homes converted into hotels or restaurants
now have no tourists. Various shop owners highlight the same issue:
they have goods, but no buyers.

Bassam runs his family's antiques and jewellery store, Giovanni, near
the East Gate entrance to the Old City, in an old Damascene home with
vast arches and ornate wooden d√(c)cor.

‚ EURO oeBusiness is not very good, because of the situation. Many
people used to come here.‚ EURO He picks up a framed photo of
himself and a woman in his store. ‚ EURO oeThat's Catherine Deneuve,
a French actress.

She's very famous,‚ EURO he says, reiterating that well-known people
from around the world used to frequent his store.

Inside the Umayyad Mosque, worshipers pray and relax in the cool
interior, a boy twirls Sufi-style through the mosque. Outside,
women sit in the courtyard shade with their children, picnicking
on sandwiches.

The vast square opposite the mosque is filled with food vendors,
clothing vendors, families milling about, kids selling roses. Children
gather around a hoard of pigeons, buying feed to toss to them.

A popcorn vendor in his 20s says things are improving in Syria.

‚ EURO oeLife here is good, things have gotten back to normal, the
government supports us. But my house is in Babbila, just outside of
Damascus. I can't go back there, the 'rebels' have taken over.‚ EURO

Almost daily, armed groups launch mortars on civilian areas in
Damascus, from villages on the outskirts like Jobar, Mliha. On Apr.

15, mortars struck Manar elementary school, killing one child and
injuring 62 others. A kindergarten was also shelled that morning,
in the same densely-inhabited area of Damascus, injuring three more

On Apr. 29, the mortars struck Bader Eddin al-Hassni Institute
for religious science, killing 14 students and injuring 86 others,
according to SANA news.

As I sit outside the old city walls one afternoon, roughly one hundred
metres from East Gate, bullets whiz closely past, coming from the
direction of Jobar, an area controlled by armed groups.

Al-Midan, a district of Damascus known for its traditional Syrian
sweets, still receives local business but faces the same loss of
foreign customers as most in the tourism industry. ‚ EURO oeI used to
bring delegations here specifically for the sweets,‚ EURO says Anas,
a journalist with Syrian television. ‚ EURO oeBut as you see there
are no tourists here now.‚ EURO

Nagham, a university student, says even many local Syrians won't go
to Midan now. ‚ EURO oePeople are afraid to come here now, because
it‚ EURO (tm)s so close to Yarmouk. Midan is safe, but people think
that the 'terrorists' in Yarmouk will fire mortars here.‚ EURO

Due to attacks on civilians, including car bombings, checkpoints are
installed throughout Damascus and the countryside, causing long lines
of traffic as soldiers check vehicles for explosives. But without
the checkpoints, there would be more loss of civilian life.

Homs residents know all too well the deadly effects of the car
bombings. On Apr. 9, for example, two car bombs detonated one after
the other on the same residential street, killing 25 civilians and
injuring at least 107, according to Syrian state media. On Apr. 29, two
more car bombs and a rocket attack killed another 42 civilians in Homs.

But Homs is also a place where the reconciliation movement has taken
flight, with fighters nearly daily laying down their weapons and
opting for a political solution for Syria.

In Latakia, a coastal city roughly 350 km northwest of Damascus, near
the Turkish border, internally displaced Syrians from the Armenian
populated village of Kasab take refuge in an Armenian Orthodox Church.

On Mar. 21, armed groups began firing missiles from nearby Turkey
upon the village, later entering and taking it over, committing
atrocities against the civilians. Eighty people are reported to have
been killed, and nearly 2000 villagers fled to Latakia and other areas
to escape the attacks by a reported 1500 Chechnyan and other foreign,
al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, backed by Turkish special forces.

‚ EURO oeThey can destroy our houses, but we're going back. We believe
in the Syrian Arab Army,‚ EURO said Suzy, from Kasab, who described
some of the atrocities committed. ‚ EURO oeThey raped the older women,
because they couldn't find girls, so they raped the elderly. They
destroyed everything, they robbed our houses, they broke the statue
of the Virgin Mary.‚ EURO

When asked her sentiments on Syria's president, she replied without
hesitation, like so many in Syria. ‚ EURO oeWe have a leader,
Dr. Bashar Al-Assad. We love him so much, we don't want anything
else. We want him, we want Syria back.‚ EURO

Elsewhere in Latakia, a city secured by the Syrian army but attacked
from a distance with missiles, children and teens play in a fountain
in a large, clean park, and men and women sit smoking shisha or hookah
and chatting.

Fadia, an unveiled Sunni Muslim, sitting with a group of veiled and
unveiled women, says that internally Latakia does not have serious
problems. ‚ EURO oeLife is good here, we're living happily, the army
have protected us here. We love our president, our army, our country,
but the outside forces want to destroy the country. There is no
problem between Christians, Muslims, Armenians, Alawites here. We
are all one family, no one can split us apart.‚ EURO

This is a point Lilly Martin, who is from California but has lived
in Syria for the past 22 years, drives home.

‚ EURO oeAt the beginning, we had a surge of violence, protestors
attacking Syrian police and security, but right away the Latakian
people turned against it. The population here didn't accept it. We
have Christians, Muslims, and minorities here. There is very little
support for the ‚ EURO ~rebels‚ EURO (tm) here, so it's been a peaceful
city,‚ EURO she says.

In Homs, Latakia, Damascus, walls and shop doors are decorated with
large, painted replicas of the Syrian flag and posters of President
Assad. Syrian flags appeared at Easter celebrations, wedding receptions
and engagement parties. And along with the flags, there are patriotic
songs for Syria and President Assad, with a roomful of celebrants
singing along, hooting and clapping.

On the Autostrad, the main street leading to the al-Mezze district
of Damascus, a block-long mural brightens the otherwise standard
wall surrounding a school. The colourful mosaic of scraps of tiles
and recycled items is the project of six artists. Moaffak Makhoul,
the lead artist, explains the concept.

‚ EURO oeWe did this for the children, to bring a smile to their
faces. And we wanted to send a message to the world that we Syrians
love life, and that we insist on living, on surviving,‚ EURO he says.

His message also has an important political element to it. ‚ EURO
oeTo those who espouse the ideology that wants to eliminate others,
the Takfiri ideology, we tell them 'no'.‚ EURO

Four youths in their late teens stop to talk. ‚ EURO oeWe were
living well, with security, before this happened. We were living in
freedom. Now we're not,‚ EURO says Rehab, one of the girls. ‚ EURO
oeNow you don't know who is a terrorist. We just want our country to
return to how it was.‚ EURO

Ramez, another one of the teenagers, says things are better now, ‚
EURO oelife is improving.‚ EURO Batoul, the other girl, adds ‚ EURO
oeWe love Bashar. He's a good person. We know what he has done to
improve the country. And before any of these things began, we were
living well, safely.‚ EURO

Bassam, in his lonely East Gate store, is also optimistic. ‚ EURO
oePeace is coming sooner or later ‚ EURO " no, sooner. Damascus is
a wonderful city.

And the people are wonderful too.‚ EURO

The call to prayer sounds, church bells ring out, in a city and
country where life goes on despite it all.