Damascus residents fearful, anxious for stability

by Reuters
Thursday, 5 May 2011 10:25 GMT

* Resident say city tense, fearful

* Markets closing early, streets empty at night

* Rumours of bread, fuel shortages

By Mariam Karouny

BEIRUT, May 5 (Reuters) - Pro-democracy protests have left many residents of Syria's capital worried and longing for stability and its bustling streets are deserted by nightfall.

Protests against the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad have erupted in many towns across the country but in the capital itself, ringed by security forces, only a few people have so far joined demonstrations for greater freedoms.

Residents reached by telephone said schools, universities and businesses remain open. But as the suburbs have started to boil, Damascus residents have felt the heat.

"The fear begins on Friday. This day which was our break, our relaxing and chilling day, it became a nightmare," said Soha, a masters degree student at the University of Damascus.

"Sometimes I feel we are at war, but with who?"

Fridays have seen the biggest protests outside Damascus, and the bloodiest confrontations, because protesters have used the main weekly Muslim prayers as a launchpad for demonstrations.

"Life here is almost normal. People are going out but of course it is not like the days before the protest," said Dima, a 28-year-old Damascus resident. "You can feel there is tension."

It was impossible to verify the accounts independently since authorities have prevented most foreign media from operating in Syria since the protests erupted six weeks ago.

Imad Assi, a 35-year-old employee at a private company, said that people were getting tired of the protests and felt it was draining the economy.

"Many Syrians work per day and if there is no work they know they will not be able to feed their children. This situation has been going on for weeks. People are sick of it."

"Yes, we all want freedom but what will I do with freedom when I cannot feed my children. This is what many are asking now," Assi said.


A political activist in Damascus said many cafes and restaurants have lost their clients who now head home early and stay with their families.

"At the beginning things were normal, then it started changing. People are worried now. They do not know where is the country going to. Are we going to be like Iraq?" the activist said, referring the sectarian bloodshed which ravaged Syria's neighbour after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

"I could not find a taxi to take me home one night. This is impossible -- it never happens in Damascus."

Damascus, one of the oldest inhabited capitals in the world, is rich with archeological sites which draw visitors and helped the country enjoy a tourism boom in the last three years.

The Umayyad dynasty made Damascus the capital of a Muslim empire that stretched to Spain, building the 8th-century Umayyad Mosque, one of Islam's grandest sites.

Syria had expected to receive 8.5 million tourists in 2011 but the tourism sector, which accounts for 13 percent of the economy, is almost certain to be hit hard by the unrest in which more than 500 people have been killed.

"People began spending from their savings...and many are worried that with the summer approaching we might lose the tourism opportunity," said a resident who declined to be named.

Residents said that daily rumours added to their worries.

"We wake up one day hearing that we are running out of bread, we rush to buy some. Or another day that there is a fuel shortage we try to stock up," said Dima, 38, mother of two.

"We know it may be rumours but what if one day they were not? I cannot risk it."

A merchant at Hamidiya market, a covered old souq which dates back to 1863, said he has shutting down early during the week and stopped opening on Friday.

"In this way we are losing money. We used to work the most on Fridays. I am closing because I am scared. I do not want me or any of my workers to be trapped suddenly between security forces and protesters," he said.

Residents described a sense of fear and tension in the city. "We do not know what the future will bring us," said one resident called Mona.

"Anybody with a mobile and a laptop is a suspect. It is being confiscated. People are boiling and scared."

"We used to go out any time we wanted and come back late at night without feeling threatened but now we are scared."

"I never imagined how precious stability was. I used to complain before and think we were not living well, but after this I wish those old days would come back."

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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