yrian security forces taking position in the Al-Midan district of Damascus on July 18
An image grab taken from Syrian TV shows Syrian security forces taking position during armed clashes with gunmen who the TV called "terrorists" (unseen) in the Al-Midan district of Damascus on July 18. For the first time in decades, the eve of Ramadan in Syria's capital is overshadowed by fear. Panic has engulfed the city amid unprecedented combat after a bombing killed three top officials. © - AFP/SYRIAN TV/File
yrian security forces taking position in the Al-Midan district of Damascus on July 18
Roueida Mabardi, AFP
Last updated: July 20, 2012

Fear stalks Damascus on the eve of Ramadan

For the first time in decades, the eve of Ramadan in Syria's capital is overshadowed by fear. Panic has engulfed the city amid unprecedented combat after a bombing killed three top officials.

The city has been rocked by clashes for five days, and Wednesday's blast targeting the core of the regime killed officials including the defence minister and President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.

"There is tension, people are scared, and they feel that after the attack, anything can happen," said a street vendor in the central district of Bab Touma.

Fear is so widespread that "people are reacting disproportionately to the slightest incident," the vendor told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He added that on Wednesday, after the explosion at the security headquarters, "a simple car accident sparked terror in Bab Touma, and people started fleeing in all directions."

In the middle-class district of Qassaa, the atmosphere was bleak. "People closed their shops when news of the attack spread," said Nidal, a tailor.

The holy month of Ramadan is usually a time for family gatherings and frantic shopping in time for sunset, when Muslims break their fast.

But 16 months on from the outbreak of the revolt, combat raged inside the capital, after it had been mostly spared the violence that has engulfed other parts of Syria.

Wednesday's unprecedented attack on the National Security headquarters killed defence minister Daoud Rajha, Shawkat his deputy and crisis cell chief Hassan Turkmani.

"What Ramadan? The situation is grave -- battles are taking place in the heart of the capital," said one textiles shop owner in the commercial district of Salhiyeh.

"There's no Ramadan for me this year," said taxi driver Amer. "My three brothers are in prison."

Housewife Rahaf predicted that "this Ramadan is not going to be like any other." She cited not only security problems but also rising prices. "Life is more expensive, and we won't be able to go out in the evenings," she said.

Her daughter Nemat added: "On Tuesday, I experienced real fear for the first time. The streets were completely empty before sunset and the shops were closed. It's sad."

Clashes have raged in several districts of Damascus, particularly in the Al-Midan neighbourhood, not far from the historic old city and frequently visited by residents for its exquisite restaurants.

Across Damascus, much of everyday life has ground to a standstill.

"You can smell the blood," one resident said.

"We live in fear," a man from the up-market Mazzeh neighbourhood told AFP. "We couldn't flee because of the shelling. We had to stay here."

A hairdresser expressed concern for the capital's future. "Look at what happened to other cities -- we have to save Damascus," said Bashar.

In the Salhiyeh and Shaalan districts most shops were closed on Thursday. Fruit sellers did not open their stores because they had no produce.

Many roads in Damascus were cut off, and many people had to make detours to get to their workplaces. Very few taxis plied their trade on the streets.

A nurse in a Dummar hospital, just northwest of Damascus, said that "only a quarter of the hospital's employees made it to work" because regime troops had cut off the roads.

Samir, who lives in Jaramana in the suburbs, said he has taken a decision.

"I'm going to send my children to Tartus (on the coast), far from the violence," he said, adding: "Nobody's thinking about Ramadan this year."

According to Samir, residents of Jaramana have turned some schools there into refuges for the displaced, and calls for assistance were made from the minarets of mosques.

© AFP 2012

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