It’s 4 pm on a mid-June day in 2013. Al-Qaboun neighbourhood is virtually empty; everyone stayed home after hours of violent shelling, which usually begins early morning, only to partially stop by noon. My friend and I are looking for any shop that would have two packets of baking powder.
“Is it really necessary?” asks my friend, distressed by the distant and close sounds of shelling.
“Yes, we can’t make cake without it.”
My friend continues driving his old car in narrow alleyways which have not been spared the evils of shelling. Rubble from destroyed houses fills the alleyways left and right. The neighbourhood looks lifeless and depressing, and the scorching heat is adding to the suffering of the thousands of its residents. He tries to convince me not to go any further. “I’d rather not reach the main road as we will be open to mortar shells.”
I don’t feel like answering. I turn my head and look out of the half-rolled up window at the old houses that look like they can’t possibly take another round of shelling, or even a small-scale earthquake. I think about how life and death became indistinguishable. It wasn’t the case before the revolution; back then, death was one of the scariest thoughts to occur to me, and life, with all of its colourful generosity, had its arms open for me.
Today, and after all what we’ve been through and seen, and after spending entire days under shelling, and witnessing how my friends have turned into corpses, and others who said their final goodbyes to their loved ones and buried them in dreadful silence, everything has become indistinguishable to me. All I wish for is an end to this war, and knowing how unsuitable this wish is for us, I learnt how to wish for simpler things, like for the sounds of shelling to stop for just a day.
From the early days of the Syrian revolution, us Damascenes turned our gazes towards al-Qaboun, which was a poor, marginalized neighbourhood on the eastern outskirts of the international highway connecting Damascus and Homs. We only knew a few landmarks there: the smugglers market, the Tropicana pool, the military police, the special units, and the Sironex electronics factory. The neighbourhood caught our attention for its peaceful movements and demonstrations, as well as funerals held to honour martyrs.
When opposition forces took over the neighbourhood in 2012, al-Qaboun was subjected to military campaigns and sporadic sieges, and as most of the areas outside its control, the regime used the worst war tactics and the most destructive weapons, turning the lives of the residents to hell. Daily shelling became a reality, and so did detentions and disappearances in case any of the residents wished to leave to safer areas.
The neighbourhood’s proximity to the capital’s centre, and the ease of access to it -through either the main entrance from the checkpoint or side roads, which were later closed- encouraged many activists to go to al-Qaboun looking for any chance of civil work, which was no longer possible in Damascus. Between 2012 and 2013, the neighbourhood was the headquarter for opposition activities, especially following the regime’s campaign to suppress any attempts of dissent in the country’s capital by either murder, imprisonment or displacement of many activists during the first three years of the revolution.
Protests in al-Qaboun continued on a smaller scale, and many educational, medical and developmental projects were launched by dozens of activists in an attempt to compensate the absence of governmental institutions in “liberated areas”. These activities were their way of presenting a model of the future Syria which they dreamt of, in a small area where Assad’s regime was not in control. That small area, no larger than a few square kilometers, revived thirst thirst for freedom.
During that time, my friends and day spent many months going back and forth from Damascus to al-Qaboun on a daily basis. We used to smuggle in whatever food and medicine we could, knowing that we were doing something to ease the suffering of the thousands who refused to abandon their homes and lives, and give into the regime’s plan to displace the residents of opposition areas.
These daily trips became a link which connected our semi-normal lives in Damascus -a place with no shelling, sieges or hunger- to the lives of those besieged in opposition areas outside the regime’s control. In a way, it also became our way of redeeming the sense of guilt for living a normal daily life, while they died their far-from-normal daily deaths. A friend of mine used to always tell me: “Justice is not all of us living under siege and dying; the only justice we have to demand is for this war to end.” Even though I knew that she was right, I couldn’t help but wish to be there, despite the dangers of shelling and the imminence of death, as if by doing so I would be obtaining a small portion of the justice we were calling for.
Boom.. boom.. Boom..
“A launcher.. four rockers,” my friend yelled as he heard the frightening, yet familiar, sound and tried to find a corner in which we could hide before the four rockets exploded in a few seconds.
“Stop this madness and let’s just go home. I’ll buy you the biggest cake tomorrow.”
“No, I will not let the regime rob us of even our small joys. I promised Alaa and Sham that we would make a cake today, and I will not go home tonight before we do.”
Our daily trip to the neighbourhood begins in the morning, with bags filled with food and medicine hidden under the car seats. We had our own network of contacts, and communication would allow us to know the mood of the checkpoint officers at the entrance of al-Qaboun. “The fellas are in a good mood today,” or “today is not the day, they’re checking very thoroughly”. And according to that very mood we would know whether we would be able to pass the checkpoint with the car without going through a thorough search that could cause us unnecessary trouble, or whether we should park it at the entrance to the neighbourhood and walk to avoid the checkpoint. The road which we would use to walk later became a frequent target for regime snipers.
I made many friends in the neighbourhood during these daily trips, including the family of Sham and Alaa, two girls no older than 10. I would spare no effort to make them happy, and they would always give me the warmest welcomes, despite me being a stranger to the neighbourhood. Many times i have felt that we, the visitors, were a window to the outside world for these people. “How is Damascus? How are the streets? How do people live there?” they would ask us everyday as though Damascus was a city in another country, and not merely a ten-minute drive from them. People there were kind at heart; they didn’t want war, yet they also didn’t want the humiliation of the regime. They were no longer able to live on the margins of life like they used to for the past decades. However, the price for that was too high for them and their children.
The silence returns to the neighbourhood so I suggest to my friend that we try and go to a grocery store not far from us. “This would be the last attempt. If it’s closed we’ll go back home.” He shakes his head in surrender, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to change my mind once it’s set on something.
He turned to his right and in a few seconds his eyes brightened up as he looked at me and said, “here’s uncle Abu Ahmad sitting all by himself in the store as if he’s been waiting for us. Let’s see if he has baking powder today.”
I jumped out of the car as the image expanded before my eyes, drawing a scene about the paradoxes of war, death and life Abu Ahmad is a 60-something-year-old store keeper sitting on his small chair, wearing black pants and a neatly ironed shirt, holding his olive-coloured rosary. He gets out of his chair to see who would dare go to a store under all this shelling. Our visit to his store made him realize that he’s not the only madman in the neighbourhood today, and that his presence in his story was not arbitrary.
We leave Abu Ahmad’s grocery store carrying packets of baking powder like two people who have stumbled on a treasure. We go home and stay there until sunset. With the early hours of the evening, a strange quiet falls on the neighbourhood, which gives us room to tell jokes about regime soldiers who are probably having dinner at the time, or preparing tea and hookahs with a complete disregard to this war they are forced to wage. It’s a chance for me to get into my car and drive home, away from all the shelling and death.