By ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Shops and restaurants close early in Damascus these days, their owners eager to get home before dark, which sometimes brings shootings and other crime. Blast walls and checkpoints ring government buildings to guard against car bombs. Residents struggle with spiraling prices and power outages.
In my first visit in nearly a year, I found Damascus transformed by Syria's deadly and divisive uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime. A capital once considered one of the safest in the world has become tense with worries over violence. A city that had grown boisterous and optimistic with an economic blossoming in recent years is now grim with fears for the future.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Beirut-based AP correspondent Zeina Karam visited Damascus for the first time in nearly a year and found the Syrian capital transformed by the country's uprising.
Electricity outages lasting up to 12 hours a day have forced residents to buy private generators, and the din from their engines echoes along the commercial Hamra Street. Much of what I saw reminded me of Iraq and my hometown of Beirut, where 22 years after the civil war ended, electricity cuts are still frequent due to the dilapidated infrastructure. At one point when I got stuck in a hotel elevator, I thought for a split second that I was back in Beirut.
Prices have tripled in the past few months, and companies have begun laying off employees or slashing salaries.
A joke making the rounds among Syrians underscores the daily grind of shortages, inflation and uncertainty. A man brings home a chicken for his wife to cook, but she tells him there's no gas for the stove. "What about the microwave?" No electricity, she says. How about even the heater in their main room? No fuel.
At which point, the chicken jumps out of the bag and cries, "Long live Bashar Assad!"
My last visit here was in April, two weeks after the first protests began in the southern town of Daraa, sparked by the arrest of schoolchildren who had scrawled anti-government graffiti.
At that time, the capital felt untouched, still bustling with tourists and with young Syrian entrepreneurs with big plans. Since succeeding his father in 2000, Assad kept an iron grip on politics, but carried out economic liberalization that fueled the growth of the middle class and brought a commercial vibrancy to what had long been a drab capital. Foreign banks, international boutiques, cafe chains, Western-style malls and hotels mushroomed across Damascus.
The protests in Daraa were only just beginning to spread to other parts of the country when I was last here. But the regime was showing the first signs of concern. I had been reporting from Damascus for only nine days when the order came from the Information Ministry — I had 45 minutes to leave the country. The result was a rushed dash to pack my things and drive to the border.
Since then, Assad's regime has waged a fierce crackdown on the uprising that a U.N. official said Tuesday has left more than 7,500 people dead. Damascus has not seen the mass protests as in other cities, much less the deadly bombardment or pitched battles between security forces and armed dissidents. Instead, the seat of Assad's rule has seen flare-ups of violence that set residents on edge.
Over several days in the city this week, I visited some sites that were centerpieces of Assad's "New Damascus."
The Four Seasons Hotel's shopping mall, for example, was only a year ago a festive middle-class stomping grounds. Young people would flock to the sidewalk tables of its Costa Coffee and nearby Rotana Cafe for tea and waterpipes or stroll among its high-end shops. But on a recent day, the complex was largely empty.
Similarly, a year ago, you could wait for hours for a table at Elissar, a restaurant in one of the renovated traditional stone houses in Damascus' old city, popular among Syrians and tourists alike. It was largely empty Monday night as we dined there.
Five star hotels also are deserted, save for a few journalists and the odd couple having breakfast a la carte, because the hotel no longer has enough clients to serve buffets.
Among the Syrian upper and middle classes, there is often disdain for a protest movement they see as largely dominated by lower-class, religiously conservative Sunnis. Assad has retained support among the country's Alawite minority — a Shiite offshoot sect to which he belongs — but also among secular Syrians of all sects, who do not trust the opposition.