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View From a Damascus Roof: Mortars, MiGs and Men at War

This is the first cross-post between News Deeply and The National, the government-owned English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Phil Sands has been the paper’s Syria correspondent for four years. Here, he paints a picture of Damascus – a city on the edge.

Written by Phil Sands Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

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A normal enough day in Damascus: a bright, cool winter morning, the sky is slightly hazy and a MiG fighter jet is hard at work bombing the southern suburbs.

On a break from lessons in a school next to the jet’s target zone, children run in a playground, the younger ones chasing a football while small groups of teenage boys with thickly gelled hair begin to slope off, hands in pockets, for an illicit smoke.

The MiG circles overhead beneath the low cloud cover, then dives towards Daraya, the district next door. It is 10am and this is the ninth bombing run of the day.

A few of the children look up at the jet, but many don’t. Air strikes in the capital used to be unusual, and people would stop and stare, pointing at the planes. Now they hardly draw a passing comment.

There is a word Damascenes use to describe how they are adjusting to the new, war-torn version of their country: timsahna, a term derived from the Arabic word for crocodile. It means, we’ve become crocodiles – in other words, thick-skinned.

A year or so ago, the sound of a single bullet being fired in southern Damascus would send frightened parents rushing round to pull their children out of schools. Now, unless their neighbourhoods are directly targeted by mortar shells or bombs, they don’t pay too much attention to it. Then again, in lots of places there are no schools in session and thus no classes from which to remove your children.

It all lends a certain inbetween-ness to many people’s lives. They are not mired in the desperation of bitter street-fighting and artillery bombardments shown so vividly on the TV news.

But nor are they wrapped in the odd disconnection that is the bubble of central Damascus, with its cafes, expensive foreign cars and grimly clung-to insistence that none of this can really be happening, that things are not that bad.

Between these extremes there is a certain crossover zone, on the edge of the furnace but still close enough to occasionally get burnt by the fire – and it is a strange place.

Abu Mohesin and Abu Anas sat on the rooftop of their four-storey building, both unshaven and still dressed in pyjamas, drinking tea and watching the air attacks.

First the roar of a jet engine, then the sharply angled, fast moving outlines of the fighter appeared small against the sky – to catch a glimpse of it, you need to look at a point in front of where the noise comes from. It takes a bit of practice, but there are ample opportunities to learn.

If the jet is firing missiles, the dives are shallow, and puffs of smoke hang behind the plane as it pulls up from the town below. The rockets streaking away from the underside of the aircraft are sometimes just visible.

Bombing runs are steeper, two large black objects drifting gently away from the jet, which then sharply climbs. Ten or 15 seconds later, a mushroom cloud starts to grow on the skyline, followed by a powerful shock wave.

It wasn’t only the grim spectacle of the routine bombings that had drawn Abu Mohesin and Abu Anas on to their roof. There had been a power cut all morning and, rather than stay in the chilly darkness of their unheated flats, they had sought out the meagre warmth of the winter sunshine.

Abu Mohesin is a jovial, middle-aged, middle-class family man while Abu Anas, his neighbour, about the same age and also a father, is a little less light-hearted. He wants to leave Syria, for Europe if possible, while Abu Mohesin is staying put.

They sat in plastic garden chairs, drinking tea, surrounded by the usual detritus of a Syrian rooftop: bright red water tanks, empty diesel containers and assorted, enormous rusting satellite dishes, long since replaced by newer, better, smaller versions.

The main downside to enjoying the sun’s warmth, and having a grandstand view of the world’s longest continually inhabited capital city being bombed by a modern air force, was the mortars.

Mortar bombs sailed in long arcs over the two men’s heads, the firing position on one side of their homes, the target, once again rebel-held Daraya, on the other side.

Like the jet, the mortars have a routine. A bang, smoke rising on the ridge from the mortar barrel, the whine as the bomb loops overhead, then the crash as it lands.

“It’s fine for us as long as they keep going over, maybe this is the safest place we could be,” said Abu Mohesin.

Nine times out of ten the mortars are not a problem in their small corner of Damascus. But every now and then the whine of an incoming bomb sends people scrambling for cover, or the blast is close enough to make them flinch.

“A week ago one hit the kitchen of a flat, just past the main bus stop,” said Abu Anas. He brushed off the question of who fired it, the regime or the rebels, saying it was impossible to know for sure.

Bombs and bullets fly all over the place nowadays and, for those not directly a party to the battle, it’s a baffling, terrifying experience if you happen to be caught out in the killing zone. In the heat of the moment it’s also a moot point as to who is doing the firing.

Much of the local speculation is that the kitchen mortar was a faulty bomb, fired by the army and intended for Daraya, only to fall short. These things happen, people say, with a resigned shrug. At least that time no one was killed, the flat was empty, a man was slightly wounded in the leg.

There was also an air strike near by late last year. The talk locally is that soldiers called the jet in to bomb rebels, only for an inexperienced infantry officer to give the pilot wrong targeting coordinates. The missiles were fired into a civilian neighbourhood far from the insurgents’ position, and killed 13 people.

It was never officially announced but locals say soldiers in the area apologised and did what they could to help the wounded and clean up the mess.

It’s a war. These things happen, people say, and if you’re fortunate they don’t happen to you. Timsahna, they shrug. We have become crocodiles.

“I sometimes wonder if I should move to a safer place but the truth is nowhere is really safe in Syria any more,” Abu Mohesin said. “There’s no security, just luck. We are all in God’s hands.”

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