In Damascus, Syrians pray Ghouta offensive will end shelling nightmare


Damascus (AFP)

In the eastern Damascus suburb of Jaramana, a group of somber young Syrians lights candles under a massive portrait of two smiling men: brothers killed in rebel shelling on the capital.

The district has been pounded by anti-government fighters entrenched in Eastern Ghouta, long the opposition's main enclave on the capital's outskirts but now facing a ferocious government assault.

Since it began a month ago, the offensive has killed more than 1,400 civilians in Ghouta, according to a war monitor.

Rebels have lobbed rockets, mortar rounds, and shells onto Damascus in retaliation, killing around 50 civilians.

Their lives upended by opposition fire, Damascus residents are hoping the regime's push into Ghouta will bring an end to this "nightmare".

Rawad Shehadeh, 28, jumps over the crater punched into the pavement by the same shelling that killed his friends Karim and Nayef Kabbani, whose portraits now hang outside a building in Jaramana.

"All the walls are now covered with pictures of martyrs. Each time a new one goes up, I'm afraid of looking at it, afraid of seeing a familiar face," Shehadeh tells AFP.

Jaramana has been particularly hard hit.

"I go to sleep worried and never knowing if I will wake up alive or if I will be dead," says Shehadeh, who works in a gym.

- 'Crazy war' -

Cranking up the music in her east Damascus apartment, Roa Maaruf tries desperately to drown out the sounds of clashes raging just a few hundred metres away in Ghouta.

The 30-year-old humanitarian worker says she has even stopped reading news in an effort to ignore the war, but admits her efforts are in vain.

"Booms of explosions all day and night, taxi drivers listening to news on the radio, people on the street talking about shelling, and ambulances rushing wounded to hospitals round-the-clock," she says.

"I try to escape the war and its effects, but we're living it. It follows me wherever I go."

Kanana, a 34-year-old mother, on the other hand, reads every word about the Ghouta assault, waiting impatiently for the capital to be secured.

"I hope that this crazy war will end before my (three-year-old) son Mayyar grows older," she says.

"I don't want him go through what I did. If he asks me why all this happened, I won't have any answers to give him," she says.

Kanana says she has become an expert on recognising the sounds of rockets slamming nearby from those of incoming artillery fire.

"Sometimes I imagine they're competing against each other, like in a race. I hope the army will win and end the indiscriminate shelling," she says.

- Counting the shells -

Syria's army has recaptured more than 80 percent of the former opposition bastion in Ghouta.

On Sunday, President Bashar al-Assad paid a rare visit to the battered enclave to congratulate his troops.

"The inhabitants of Damascus are more than grateful and they will maybe tell their children in the coming decades how you saved the capital," Assad told soldiers in a video released by his office.

Damascus has been spared much of the devastation of Syria's seven-year war, but rebel fire and car bomb attacks claimed by jihadists have rattled the population and scarred some neighbourhoods.

The Old City's Christian quarters of Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi were once lively by day and night, with trendy restaurants and cafes operating from old restored houses.

Now, the streets are empty. Eateries and bars have had to cancel events, with customers too afraid to venture out in fear of shelling.

Cafe owner Melhem Melhem counts off the number of shells that have crashed near his establishment in recent years: 25.

"Bab Sharqi has gone from being a lively nighttime spot to a place where we now go to bed early," he tells AFP.

His cafe is empty, with staff gathering just to watch the nightly news.

Looking through the window of his cafe, Melhem points to the east, where smoke billows into the air following air strikes.

"I'm going to be patient until the army's operation is over -- then everything will go back to the way it was," he says.