The government has launched its "Together, We Rebuild" campaign
that now peppers the capital's streets with posters that feature
hands clasped together.
But some residents of the capital anticipate more destruction and
say talk of rebuilding is premature. Daily, they hear blasts of
government bombardment onto rebellious suburbs and the booms of
warplanes in the sky on bombing runs.
To retaliate, rebels use mortars and car bombs to hit the centre of
the capital, an area a few miles wide that is firmly in government
hands. Earlier this month, 27 mortar and rocket attacks hit on a
single day and Damascenes fear rebels will rain hell on the capital
on election day to protest the event.
"If that day is the rebels' new benchmark for showing their wrath,
and I think it is, then God help us with these elections," said
Mahmoud, 37, a merchant by day and chauffeur by night.
A new fear is that rebels are digging tunnels into Damascus, either
to smuggle themselves and weapons into the heart of Assad's
stronghold or to pack explosives under the capital.
Such "tunnel bombs" are a tactic rebels have started using in recent
months on military targets in the north, including a hotel used by
soldiers in Aleppo and a base in Idlib province. Fighters dig
tunnels hundreds of meters long to plant explosives that obliterate
an entire area.
Tunnel bombs have not yet been used in Damascus, but residents fear
they could reduce a whole neighborhood of tower blocks to rubble and
Earlier this month, state security guards searched basements of
dozens of buildings in several Damascus neighborhoods including
affluent Malki, home to senior government officials. They were
looking for signs of tunneling, residents say.
Authorities have levied a "reconstruction tax" that shows up on the
monthly phone bill in small print, on the utilities bill, and even,
to some soldiers' outrage, as a deduction from their already meager
"In what kind of crazy world do I get sent to shoot rockets at
buildings then pay to rebuild them?" said Hassan, a 19-year-old
Most major businesses and high-profile merchants in Damascus have
put up banners endorsing Bashar al-Assad's presidency. The
larger-than-life posters of Assad striking various military or stern
postures far overwhelm the handful of campaign slogans put forth by
the two other presidential candidates.
This month, the city streets are also paralyzed with marches in
support of Assad, adding to gridlock that developed over the past
two years as the government shut down major avenues and placed armed
men at checkpoints on most streets.
Even Damascenes who support the government express doubt about the
prospects for a genuine election in war time, although they say the
vote is needed to move beyond the conflict.
"Of course the whole thing is rigged. It's a film, but it's the only
way out of our crisis," said Ayman, 35, a government supporter. He
suggested the result of the election was already a foregone
conclusion: "Assad will win 70 percent, and each of the other (two)
candidates will win 15 percent. You'll see."
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Anti-Assad residents, such as middle-aged Ammar, an entrepreneur and
father of two, say they might consider boycotting the vote but fear
"If I don't vote, will there be a
permanent note in my record? Does it mean that when I'm stopped at a
checkpoint, they can punch in my ID into their computer and discover
that I've abstained? I don't know," he said.
Pockets of normalcy remain in Damascus, despite three years of
fighting that has killed 160,000 people, driven nearly a third of
Syrians from their homes and cut the capital off from its war zone
In the city centre, a packed gym offers a spinning class with techno
music that blares out onto the street. Not too far from Assad's
residence, the Bulgarian Cultural Centre offers salsa and tango
Some Damascenes say they conduct most of their business at night
because fewer rockets seem to land after dark - perhaps because
rebels are careful not to give away their firing positions with
flares that can be seen in the night sky.
Packed coffee shops continue to cater to young people, many of them
unemployed, spending hours sipping coffee and tea and chain smoking.
Some are college students who have delayed their graduation by
purposely failing a course or two in order to postpone mandatory
Asked to describe his life lately, 25-year-old Motaz, who is a
chemistry major, said: "Frozen. My entire generation is suspended in
Among the crowd that consumes alcohol, a minority in traditional
Damascus, drinking get-togethers sometimes start in mid-afternoon in
order to wrap up the party by 10 pm, so that guests can get home
through streets choked with checkpoints.
The city has been militarized - dozens of shops have dropped their
usual merchandise and instead now cater to soldiers and state
security service members. One shop advertised a sale on
shoulder-worn gun holsters and hot weather combat boots.
The war-time economy is hitting small businesses. One cafe owner
says he freezes bread and reheats it, and is cutting down on
"tahini", or sesame seed butter, a key ingredient in hummus.
"It's a little bland, but it's war-time hummus."
(Editing by Oliver Holmes and Peter Graff)
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