Parallels
9:56 am
Wed September 4, 2013

In Damascus, Anxiety, School Shopping And Soldiers Everywhere

Originally published on Wed September 4, 2013 12:29 pm

The author is a Syrian citizen in Damascus who is not being further identified for safety reasons.

A threatened U.S. military strike against Syria, now on hold, has left much of Damascus in limbo, filled with unease and uncertainty.

Since President Obama said that the Syrian government must be punished for allegedly using chemical weapons against its civilians, the capital has turned into one huge military barracks.

State security personnel and soldiers have abandoned their garrison compounds on the outskirts of town and moved into the city, closing off entire streets for their own use and seemingly taking shelter among civilians.

They have moved into underground garages in upscale neighborhoods like Kafar Sousseh, many of them bringing new government-issued cars and SUVs.

Residents there say state security men now also occupy empty homes, not always with permission from the owners, a theme commonly heard in many other neighborhoods.

One upset resident in another upscale neighborhood, Mazzeh, said she awoke a few days ago to find several state security men occupying the first-floor apartment, which was left empty several months ago by its owners.

"They blast their music at odd hours, and they keep lugging in crates of ammunition," she said. "It's all just unsightly."

State security men have also moved into mosques around town and, along with army soldiers, now occupy several schools throughout the city. The academic year is scheduled to begin on Sept. 15, but parents, children and the government all are uncertain when school will actually start.

"School? What school?" said the mother of an 11-year-old girl. "I honestly don't think we're going to have school this semester. And my daughter is already very upset about that because she misses her friends and she'd been looking forward to school."

But a vigilant-looking soldier who stood guard at one of the schools turned barracks said he thought the building would be vacated in time for children to start their studies on time: "God willing, it will all be over by then."

A spillover of soldiers can be seen along sidewalks, complete with bunk beds, sleeping bags and outdoor ovens.

Near some of the now-abandoned embassies in Damascus, a soldier takes a midday snooze on a mattress inside an empty guard booth, his legs spread out onto the sidewalk.

Prices have soared on everything from food staples to school uniforms. And it seems that lately, prices spike every time Obama speaks.

On Saturday, the day Obama announced he would seek congressional approval before any strike, Syria's currency plummeted more than 40 percent, nearing an all-time low.

It suddenly took 270 Syrian pounds to equal the value of one U.S. dollar, just enough to buy a little bit of fresh fruit at the market. That compares with 190 Syrian pounds to the U.S. dollar on Aug. 21, the day the U.S. government claims President Bashar Assad's forces used sarin gas to kill more than 1,400 people outside Damascus.

Before Syria's uprising turned civil war, now in its third year, the exchange rate was about 50 Syrian pounds to the dollar, a rate that maintained a decent middle-class existence for most Syrians, who average a monthly salary of about $200.

To placate Syrians' growing anxiety over money, the government on Monday opened a subsidized school uniform and supplies store. The mandatory navy blue or gray school uniforms sell for about half as much as in privately owned shops.

But as with so many things about life in Syria today, people are left having to choose between the lesser of two evils.

"This must be the worst fabric in the world," said one mother, as she felt the thick nylon uniform for middle school, comprised of unisex pants and a blazer.

"I guess I'll have to spend twice as much for some decent fabric," she said. "Because from the feel of this stuff, I'm not even sure it's flame retardant."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.