In Damascus, war-scarred Syrians weary as conflict enters 10th year

Damascus (AFP) –


The guns may have died down around Damascus as Syria's war enters its 10th year, but florist Abdelqader Qasem says the conflict has left scars he will never forget.

The 42-year-old limps slightly as he carries two tree saplings in his right hand in a city market, the empty left sleeve of his coat stuffed into his pocket.

"It'll be difficult for me to ever forget the war," he says.

"It robbed me of everything I held dearest -- my son Mazen and my left hand, as well as causing a permanent fracture in my leg," says Qasem, who was wounded in a 2013 car bombing.

Syria's war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since it started on March 15, 2011 with anti-government protests.

After years of fierce bombardment and fighting to expel rebels and jihadists from the capital's doorstep, relative calm has returned to Damascus since late 2018.

But residents like Qasem say they are still struggling to rebuild their lives after years of violence.

Today he ekes out a living selling tree saplings, shrubs and flowers on a curb in the Damascus market.

Dressed in his trademark orange coat, he places a cigarette between his lips with his right hand and lights it.

"The war in Damascus has ended for many," he says, beyond plants blooming in red, yellow and pink.

"But it will stay with me until my final years," says Qasem, who also lost his home in the war.

- 'Fear of poverty' -

Beyond the psychological scars, many Damascus residents are struggling to resume normal lives in a war-battered economy.

Behind the wheel, taxi driver Nabil al-Sharif says he drives on average 15 people around the capital on a daily basis, and every day he hears them complain.

"This car has become filled up to the brim with people's worries," says the 63-year-old.

"I've got nerves of steel. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to put up with all these endless complaints," he said.

Before 2018, he and passengers would drive around petrified of being hit and killed in rebel shelling.

But today even though the fighting has ended, passengers still look drawn, he says.

"People are uneasy. Fear of death has turned into fear of poverty," says Sharif.

His customers fret over the price of heating fuel or cooking gas, and the increased cost of living.

The United Nations has estimated the overall cost in damages to the country's economy since 2011 at nearly $400 billion.

Pro-government economists blame the economic crunch on Western sanctions against Damascus.

But they say a financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon has also led the value of the Syrian pound to plummet on the black market.

All these factors have compounded the struggle of millions of Syrians displaced by the war.

- 'So tired of leaving' -

Outside Damascus, 71-year-old Ahmad Hammada and his family are among hundreds to have sought refuge in the town of Jaramana.

Walking slowly along a muddy alleyway, he says he had grown tired of constantly having to whisk his loved ones away from the fighting.

"During the war, we've fled at least 10 times from one place to the next," he says.

"We travelled across hundreds of kilometres (miles) before arriving in the Damascus countryside," says Hammada, who fled a home in northern Syria.

He and his family now squat in a building under construction with no electricity, in a Jaramana neighbourhood that lacks proper water pipes or sewers.

Inside, his 64-year-old wife Zareefa has pinned plastic sheets to the windows to try to keep out the cold and rain.

She serves tea without sugar as it is now too expensive, and the stove is stone cold as her family cannot afford wood.

"I feel like my whole life is nothing but war and being on the road," she says.

"It's taken everything out of me. My children have been made homeless, my home was destroyed and we have nothing left."

To make matters even worse, they have now been told they need to leave this building too, she says, glancing at her husband and her eyes welling up.

"My final wish in this life is to be able to stay in a house without being forced to leave it," she says.

"I'm so tired of leaving."