x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

At a Damascus fairground, nobody's laughing

Quieter, safer neighbourhoods of Damascus and its suburbs are now bracing for when they are also pulled fully into the maelstrom of the revolt, and what is already a broader battle for the Middle East. Phil Sands reports from Damascus.

Syrian boys fetching water in a wheelbarrow look at a destroyed government tank near a damaged mosque in Azzaz. It is not only Eid celebrations that have been subdued this year, as the tidal wave of the revolution sweeps the country.
Syrian boys fetching water in a wheelbarrow look at a destroyed government tank near a damaged mosque in Azzaz. It is not only Eid celebrations that have been subdued this year, as the tidal wave of the revolution sweeps the country.

DAMASCUS //A year ago, the amusement park on the outskirts of Damascus was jammed with suburbanites celebrating the first day of Eid.

Families with young children were out enjoying the holiday, teenage boys and girls paraded up and down in their sharpest clothes, showing off their new hairstyles.

This year only a smattering of people rode the whirling machines and even the din of loud pop music could not drown out the sound and shockwaves from mortar shells exploding a kilometre or so away.

East of the brightly lit, slow-turning Ferris wheel, a burst of luminous red tracer bullets cut through the darkening evening sky, accompanied by the dull hammering of a heavy machinegun.

The small amusement park, on the southern edge of Damascus, lies between Daraya and Sahnaya, the line at which the urban sprawl of the capital begins to give way to patches of farmland and middle-class housing.

It offers a handful of rides - bumper cars, a headache-inducing swing, a carousel, a miniature train - and, with tickets so cheap they're almost given away, it is wildly popular on the special occasions it opens. The main road gets clogged with cars, buses and small hand-pushed carts selling candyfloss, popcorn and balloons. Local cafes and fast-food restaurants do a roaring trade.

Last Eid holiday the uprising was just entering its sixth month and, although 2,200 people had already been killed according to a UN count, at the fairground it was business as usual, at least on the surface.

Even then, a closer look revealed the pressures tearing at Syria. Some in the crowd were refugees from the southern city of Deraa, the crucible of the revolt. Families had fled a series of military assaults there and, seeking shelter in the respectable suburbs of Damascus, some had taken young children along to enjoy the amusements and, by providing a slice of normality, distract them from the horrors they had seen.

Those refugees spoke of the uprising having just started. The real tidal wave was just gathering strength, they said, and would surely wash over the entire country, including the capital and its second city, Aleppo.

Many Damascenes and those living in its more affluent suburbs were, back then, still hard at work ignoring the revolt. It was something they heard about on the news but didn't see with their own eyes. Plenty were still insisting it was a fabrication of the media and activists' imaginations, rather than anything real.

Even some of those who did believe their country was in the grip of a grassroots uprising were as likely to shrug it off as something affecting the provinces, places such as Hama, Homs and Deraa, and likely to be short-lived. They drew the front line far from Damascus.

With some notable exceptions - districts such as Midan and Qaboun - the capital had not yet heard much shooting, let alone shelling, tank fire or attacks by helicopter gunships. The uprising was curiously distant from the city and, in the minds of many of its residents, it would never arrive.

Now it has. The front lines have shifted, they've reached Damascus.

Only metres from the fairground, a new army checkpoint was thrown up in the street. It was attacked by rebels the following morning - yesterday, the second day of Eid - as an attack helicopter circled overhead, firing long bursts from its machineguns into the southern suburbs below.

Plumes of grey smoke rose above the skyline from a barrage of mortars fired into Daraya.

The struggle for Damascus has not yet matched the scale of Aleppo, which is in the grip of a full-scale war, but everyone in the city has now heard the shelling, shooting and bombing. Few people seem to believe recent claims by the government to have routed the rebels in Damascus: instead they see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears that the conflict is raging.

Twelve months after the fairground was last open for post-Ramadan celebrations, rights monitors say upwards of 23,000 have been killed - ten times its level at the same point last year. The UN no longer even counts the dead and wounded, the country too dangerous for its monitoring teams to work in even with the protection of armoured cars and bulletproof vests.

Quieter, safer neighbourhoods of Damascus and its suburbs are bracing for the time when they are also pulled fully, finally into the maelstrom of the revolt, and what is already a broader battle for the Middle East.

For now they cope with assassinations, gunfights, checkpoints, fuel shortages, soaring food prices and an influx of refugees from other areas, more directly in the firing line. All the time, the shells fall closer.

The fairground is still open - just - but with exploding mortars and machine-gun fire now the soundtrack to an evening at the amusement park, it may not be for much longer.

psands@thenational.ae