x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

An escape from Damascus

A Syrian citizen walks in Tabab near Al- Tadhamn Camp in Damascus.
A Syrian citizen walks in Tabab near Al- Tadhamn Camp in Damascus.

Rehab hid in an alley with her brother as a shot rang out across the Damascus street.

Or not; in fact, it was the sound of a bus stopping abruptly at a light. A moment later, there were tears and laughter as cowering residents realised their mistake. But in Damascus no one wants to risk it.

"Everyone thought we were being shelled," said Rehab, who lives in Al Ain, of the incident last month. "That is why we all hid. Everyone is on edge. Any sound, no matter how small, makes us all jump."

Things did not seem so bad when the uprising started in March last year. For a long time Rehab felt the news reports were exaggerated.

Some of her family in the UAE - including her cousin Salma, who lives in Al Ain - grew anxious, booking a visit last summer to reassure themselves she was safe.

At that point, said Salma, Damascus seemed completely normal, having seen only a few flash demonstrations.

"Nothing was happening," she said. "We went out, everything was OK."

But in April the rebels took the battle to the capital, with shelling in its suburbs. "People then started to get scared," she said.

"The number of arrests increased in the area."

At first, only those taking part in protests or rebel activities were in danger. "But when the shelling starts, it is on everyone. No one knows who will be hit."

The shelling intensified in July, after four top officials, including the defence minister and Bashar Al Assad's brother-in-law, were killed in a blast in Damascus two days before the start of Ramadan.

And on August 22, a few days after Eid, there was further shelling, with helicopters, rockets and machine guns.

As the situtation deteriorated, Rehab decided to leave, to join Salma in the UAE.

That was no small undertaking. Although she had a visa and ticket, when she reached the airport she learned that Etihad had that day cancelled all its services to and from Syria.

She was told she could fly to Jordan, and from there by Etihad to the UAE. But she would have to wait.

"They told me I would have to have my bag packed and ready by the door, so as soon as they call me and say someone didn't check in, I could take their place."

To increase her chances of getting on a flight, she joined a waiting list for Air Arabia and Emirates Airline. On September 4, she arrived in the UAE on Emirates.

"The Arabia one was late, and my uncles did not want her to travel late," Salma said.

Although Damascus is now calmer, Salma and Rehab are nervous about how it will be in three months time, when Rehab has to go back to comply with her visit visa obligations.

"What can we do? We see no end to this," says Salma.

* Ola Salem