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As Syria fighting grows, young professionals leave Damascus

Middle-class professionals who hoped Damascus was a safe place to wait out the Syrian conflict are having second thoughts — and leaving.

April 28, 2013|By Rasha Elass, Los Angeles Times
  • Syrians assess the damage after a bomb explodes near a bakery in the capital, Damascus. Middle-class professionals who once thought the city relatively safe from clashes between rebels and government forces are leaving.
Syrians assess the damage after a bomb explodes near a bakery in the capital,… (Syrian Arab News Agency )

DAMASCUS, Syria — White daffodils and violet daisies waxed aromatic from the crystal vase on the young couple's dining table. Friends had brought the flowers as a gesture of farewell, an all-too-common sentiment these days in the Syrian capital, where even some of the most resolute families are packing up and moving out.

The exodus includes young, middle-class professionals born and raised in Damascus. Others are merchants, doctors, and teachers, the backbone of the capital's economy.

Many had never imagined leaving Damascus, the only home they have known. But after two years of "waiting to see," and hoping the violence around them would subside, many are running out of hope.

"Nothing is improving here. Everything is becoming worse. Security. Moving around. Not to mention the rising prices of food and everyday living," said Nada, as she sat near packed suitcases in her living room. Within a week, she and her husband would leave for Lebanon.

"Not too long ago I was saying no way I would leave. But we just can't stay here anymore," she said.

Like many Damascus natives, the couple thought they would endure to see some resolution to the antigovernment uprising turned civil war, which marked its second anniversary last month.

For months, they heard the sounds of shelling as rebel strongholds in the suburbs came under fire from government missile batteries etched in the hills that surround the city, a stone's throw from their city neighborhood of Muhajireen. Then there was the acrid stench of smoke from government air raids on the suburbs.

In the city proper, there have been kidnappings, car bombings and random shootings at checkpoints that residents pass on their way to work.

Nada quit her job as a receptionist at a private company downtown to avoid such risks, and for months she complained of growing frustration. She asked that her full name not be used for fear of retribution.

Those who venture out spend a good part of their day navigating checkpoints, and they hurry home before it turns dark. Hardly any business can be done in the amount of time it used to take.

At home, power and cooking gas shortages are common. In this once thriving and modern city, it is not unusual to find homemakers using outdoor hot plates to cook meals in the family kitchen.

"Sometimes, the road to my husband's work is too unsafe, and he stays home with me, and we just sit around with no electricity and not much to do," she said. He finally quit his job as a chemistry professor two weeks ago, deciding he had gambled enough with his life.

The tipping point for some in Damascus was last month, when an estimated 6,000 people were killed after increased fighting around the capital and the southern province of Dara.

For the first time, mortar shells and rockets began raining on Damascus. On at least a dozen occasions, shells fell on busy streets during rush hour and in public parks where children play. The projectiles took out trees on city sidewalks and shattered windows at schools and shops.

In one attack, a mortar shell killed a hairdresser in his salon and a mother who was running errands.

Rebels have taken responsibility for some of the attacks, but they have blamed others on government security forces.

Assigning blame is a moot point for many here, who feel trapped between the desperate acts of a cruel government and the growing military capacity of rebels.

"We felt like we're just sitting here like ducks in a lake waiting for a shell to fall on our home," Nada said.

She recalled several tense days last month when she and her husband became frantic, checking up on friends and family during a bombardment. "And then, when everything went quiet, we had to wonder when it would be our turn to get shelled. It's too much for our nerves, " she said.

The couple, about to celebrate their second anniversary, were also conflicted about starting a family.

"Before we decided to leave, my husband said maybe it's time to have a child," she recalled. "But I said: No way! Now? I don't even know if there'll be diapers available when the baby is born. Not to mention vaccinations and baby formula and all those things. And for all we know, we might get hit by chemical weapons."

The couple, who support the revolution, found tenants, a displaced family from a restive neighborhood of Damascus, to rent their home and furnishings.

"First, we're going to Beirut," she said of the Lebanese capital, easily reachable by land from Damascus. "There, we'll wait for our visa to Europe, which we already applied for."

She pointed to her luggage, packed according to the couple's contingency plans. The red suitcase included summer clothing, both his and hers. The black one had their winter clothes. Their other belongings, including textbooks, were packed into boxes and stored at their parents' homes in the city center.

Her mother, who had come to help pack, expressed concern over the couple's plans.

"I want them to get out of here, but I just hope they don't end up in a cold country, where it's difficult to make friends. I hope wherever they go, they will find community, and feel at home," she said.

Elass is a special correspondent.

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