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Life In Syria's Capital: A 'Bubble' Squeezed By Violence


We have an update now on the efforts to end the civil war in Syria. A second round of talks in Geneva this week ended in a stalemate. Both sides have raised questions about whether a third round will go forward at all. In homes this week, some residents were allowed to flee the city, which has been under siege for more than two years, the only tangible success from the negotiations.

Across the country, though, civilians are dying at an alarming rate. In a recent article for National Geographic Magazine, Anne Barnard paints a picture of life in Syria's capital, Damascus.

ANNE BARNARD: We can't say it's exactly normal. You hear shelling in the distance all the time. And every now and then, there's a mortar that will land somewhere in the city. But compared to what's going on in the rest of Syria, it really is a bubble of normalcy, one that nobody is exactly sure how long it will last. But people are shopping, going to work, there are traffic jams, there are nightclubs open. Maybe not as busy as they used to be.

And within just a few blocks of some neighborhoods, you can come to a neighborhood on the outskirts that is guarded by checkpoints and where entire blocks are completely destroyed by shelling and fighting.

RATH: Peace talks in Geneva have failed to really get off the ground. Do you have a sense of what average Syrians in the capital are expecting to happen in their city in the coming months?

BARNARD: Well, the sense in Damascus is almost one of resignation. There's a feeling that this has become their new normal. Whether they are supporters or opponents of the government - and there certainly are both within Damascus, even though it's the government-held capital - their biggest fear is that the city will be destroyed, although in a way they have a new fear now, which is that the situation will just go on forever, and it will be destroyed as it were from inside by economic despair, displaced people overwhelming the city and just a loss of spirit, a loss of this special flavor that Damascus has always had.

RATH: Well, can you talk about that a bit, because you delve into the rich history of the city in your piece? If you could talk a bit about why Damascus has been for so long celebrated for what you call its model of co-existence.

BARNARD: Damascus is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, and it's been viewed for centuries in the Arab world as a beacon of refinement and civilization. All different kinds of people would come together, trade together, work together, live together, not without conflict but with a shared love for city life and business and sitting in cafés and doing deals, and that's still true today.

RATH: So is there a fear then that the city's going to go the way of these other great cosmopolitan cities like, you know, Sarajevo or Beirut where there once had been, you know, that have now kind of devolved into sectarian conflict?

BARNARD: People in Damascus say they sort of can't imagine having a sectarian conflict inside Damascus, but that's what people often say before something like that happens. Most people view the war as something that did not begin with sectarianism. It began with a political conflict, and it still is primarily that. But at the same time, there's also a fear that the city will end up like an example much closer to home, which is Aleppo, north of Damascus, and equally beautiful city with an even larger old city that has been ravaged since rebels entered the city not necessarily with the consent of residents.

And then the government shelled, and you ended up with centuries of history being lost and damaged. Some of them even told us that they would be the first to object if armed groups tried to come inside Damascus and use it as a base, even if they're looking for those armed groups to nominally win this conflict. They don't want the war to be in Damascus.

RATH: I want to talk about one of the characters in your article. His name is Samir Naasan. He's 65 years old. He's a rich and powerful man living in a fancy house in Damascus. Tell us about him and how he views the war.

BARNARD: Well Samir Naasan lives in a house, which is completely decorated by these sepia-tone photographs of his ancestors. They founded a company, which had workshops that made the crafts that Damascus is so famous for. And he sees it as a symbol of Damascene diversity. He told me that Jews worked in his father's factories making brass objects, that Christians made the Damascene wooden mosaic furniture that you may see in many Syrian government offices and in restaurants and in everybody's homes, and that Muslims made the silk brocade.

And he spoke about this with so much pride. But then when I asked him how he thought the conflict should be solved, he said, if I were Bashar al-Assad, I would finish it in five days, even if I have to kill five million Syrians. So it was quite a contrast between this sense of diversity and co-existence and refinement and civilization and his prescribed solution for the conflict.

RATH: Anne Barnard's article about life in Syria's capital, Damascus, is in the current issue of National Geographic. Anne, thank you.

BARNARD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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