DAMASCUS — As Syrian rebel fighters edge closer towards central Damascus, displaced families who first flocked to the capital to escape the civil war elsewhere fear they will lose their safe haven.
There is scant evidence that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad are regaining control. Rebels now hold a near continuous arc of territory from the east to the southwest of his capital.
Um Hassan, a grandmother who until recently lived in the outskirts of Damascus, gave her daughter’s family refuge after they fled their bombed-out rural home town last month.
But before long rebels took over Um Hassan’s neighbourhood, a push which was inevitably followed by army bombardment and this week the entire family had to move to another suburb.
The grandmother, daughter, son-in-law and two girls found a place with one bedroom and a living room. Um Hassan cleans houses for around $15 a day to supplement the shared rent.
“We escape from one place and trouble follows. I don’t know where we can keep running to,” she told Reuters.
Almost every family in the capital is now doubling up with relatives or friends displaced elsewhere. For them, the city is their final refuge from countrywide fighting and bombardment, but now Damascenes themselves are bracing for the worst.
This week, rebels clashed with government forces right in the centre of the capital, exchanging machinegun fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) through the streets of Rawda, a ritzy district near the Central Bank.
“Can you imagine? RPGs fired in a tiny alley? They want Damascus completely destroyed?” said a witness, who withheld his name for safety reasons.
Rebels have also announced that Damascus International Airport is now a military target and clashes on the road to the airport, a 25 minute drive from the city centre, are frequent.
At least 40,000 people have been killed in Syria’s uprising, which started in March 2011 with street protests which were met with gunfire by Assad’s security forces, and which spiralled into the most enduring and destructive of the Arab revolts.
Perhaps most alarming for Damascenes is that rebels keep promising that the final battle for the capital is imminent.
A video posted on YouTube titled “Stages of Zero Hour: Are You Ready?” calls for civil disobedience and general strikes to pressure army troops to abandon their posts and join the rebels.
The video does not specify “Zero Hour”, but say it will be announced through social media, TV channels and mosques.
Once a thriving metropolis with tourists wandering through its Old City and couples sitting in its cafes, Damascus now resembles a garrison town preparing for disaster.
Last month, the army placed new missile batteries on the Qasioun Mountains, which overlook the capital, and opposition activists say more batteries are deployed within Damascus’ centre, including one inside the Old City’s medieval citadel.
Day and night, Damascenes can hear the thunderous sound of bombardment aimed at rebel-held and contested neighbourhoods.
The city’s streets have now turned into a labyrinth of checkpoints and road blocks, with several major roads permanently closed off to traffic by concrete barriers.
Vigilant armed men in civilian clothing stand guard at every turn. It is not unusual for them to open fire at the slightest perception of a threat, shooting their Russian-made assault rifles as pedestrians duck for cover.
And, desperate to flush out rebels, Assad’s forces have been strangling their strongholds, preventing much needed supplies from entering even though civilians still live there.
Um Hassan lived through this hardship before she moved.
“[Security forces] don’t let anything in. No fruit and vegetables, no flour for the bread oven, no baby milk. When the water delivery came, they made the driver empty his entire tank on the street,” she said, referring to the checkpoints that still surround Husseiniyeh, the suburb where she once lived.
“Often, they didn’t let us out, so we couldn’t go to work.”
Her tales echo those of many of the estimated 2.5 million Syrians who have fled their homes across the country.
No one is immune
Even the privileged in Damascus are not immune to worsening bread and heating oil shortages — or to the general malaise.
At a recent gathering of the well-heeled women in the affluent Malki neighbourhood, one said she now skimps on heating, turning it on only for an hour or two per day, even in the harsh December weather.
“I’ll wear four or five layers in the house, no problem. What can we do? We can’t find any heating oil,” she said.
When available, heating oil is almost 20 times more expensive than it was before the crisis.
Another woman, the wife of a retired merchant, said her family had been trying in vain to find bread for several days.
She said she could not even find non-subsidised bread, which sells at 150 Syrian pounds ($2) a dozen flat loaves. The price at government-subsidised bakeries is only 15 pounds but there is no guarantee you’ll get any even after queuing for hours.
One mother said it was the emotional well-being of her adult children that kept her up at night.
“They used to love their jobs and they were talking about starting a business together,” she said, referring to the office jobs her college-educated daughters had.
“Now, they’re without work. They sit at home with nothing to do. They’re trying to move abroad, but no one gives them visas”.
“All I can hope for is that they will meet good men and start their lives in a better place.”