The Syrian capital Damascus is nicknamed the “City of Jasmine”. One of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, it has an estimated population of 1,7 million. The people of Damascus have suffered from three years of brutal conflict, yet still find motivation to live, and cope with life using what little hope remains.
Parents, mainly mothers, roam the streets, trying to meet their children’s basic needs. When the day is over, they wait for the sun to rise, to do the same thing again.
I wake up in an Arabic house in the ‘Old City’ district of Damascus, to the aroma of coffee made by an old lady who lives next door. Every day I watch her, through the kitchen window, sitting on her rocking chair beside some flowers contemplating the sky. She never skips a day. Curious, I once asked where her family had gone. Her neighbours say she has six sons who, one by one, sought refuge in different countries, leaving her alone at home; her husband died a long time ago.
“I wouldn’t trade this house for the world,” 70-year-old Georgette says, when asked why she doesn’t go to live with one of her sons. “It’s a piece of my heart. This is where I have laughed, loved and cried. This is where I raised my children and lived. This is where I’ll die.”
I open the door of the house to the narrow street, where children are holding each others’ hands, rushing in every direction with the sound of school bells ringing in the background. Those of us fortunate enough to have finished school before the war are reminded of once-peaceful and carefree days. Bakeries and a handful of shops open in the early morning so children can buy a quick breakfast – at now-very-different prices. Such small shops usually have old owners with names written in the hearts of generations: places and faces that are part of a painting drawn in the memory of every growing child.
A few houses away, in a teddy bear shop, there’s still the black cat that I had a photo taken with, four years ago, never imagining we would have war. Mixed feelings of sadness and happiness rush my thoughts. I’m happy to see that the place has not been destroyed and is still the same, but sad remembering people who have fled Syria leaving only photos of an almost mythical past.
The only thing that appears to have changed is the erection of a military barricade next to the shop. As I walk away, still looking at that small shop, it feels like a brightly-coloured symbol of hope set against the scene of war.
In a small bus, I listen to people chatting about December and Christmas – once one of Damascus’ most prominent celebratory periods. A man asks his friend about his preparations and his friend answers: “I’ll try to decorate the house from the inside, but I can’t do it from the outside, because of the snipers.”
The bus passes a food shop whose name is familiar. It has moved to this neighbourhood from another destroyed by the fighting.
The early morning traffic starts building up. Crowds of pedestrians, shoppers and others walk along the pavements outside the shops, or try to cross the street as if they are in a race for their daily bread.
There’s the noise of cars and taxis hooting. It’s amazing how much life there still is in Damascus after three years of war. I’m surprised at the number of vehicles zooming past or crawling along when caught at traffic lights.
The radio cuts from Fairouz, a famous Lebanese singer, to an announcement about a bicycle event – a nice initiative by university students to try to break the routine of news about war. The people in the bus appear to welcome the non-conflict news item. The hearts of Syrian people still hold memorable moments, even if celebrations or public expressions of joy are rare these days.