Damascus Mortar Diary

A hard slab of what sounds like a bunch of metal plates slammed together, followed by a splash of shrapnel, shattered glass and wrecked stones hitting our walls and windows. Light-grey smoke fills the air — that’s roughly what a mortar landing is.

Someone’s car is set on fire, or perhaps a hole in someone’s wall. It might kill a friend, a parent, or an 8-year-old girl. Sometimes these random shells killed entire families. They might hit a guard or an army checkpoint every now and then, but they mostly hit civilians. They hit them at markets, schools, universities and even in their own homes. They kill and wound Sunnis, Christians, Alawaites, Druze and Shiites. These things never discriminate.

One shell hits your building or the one nearby, so you take shelter in the kitchen, the bathroom, or any place with small or no windows. You feel scared but, ironically, you laugh out loud. You curse, using words you’ve never imagined yourself uttering in the presence of your, perhaps, conservative family – or anybody for that matter.

It’s ironic when you’re walking down a street and the first mortar lands in your way. You react by changing the route completely, walking faster, only to hear a second one slamming into your new route, as if it was deliberately trying to hit you. You change the route again.

I was held captive by an army checkpoint for half an hour for snapping this picture. Luckily, they forgot to delete it from my mobile phone after having interrogated me.

When you’re alone, you might have the courage to consider snapping a picture of the smoke ahead. That will get you in serious trouble with the military if they see you. Often they can be a lot scarier than the bombing. Though, the most terrifying thing is when you’re out with someone you care for. The last thing you need is for this someone to be hurt on your watch.

As life goes on, you get used to the bombardment. You become more reasonable and realize that hearing the blast means you’re still alive, for you won’t hear the one that kills you. Blasts will continue to wake you up when you’re asleep, and, yes, they will still be scary but not to the extent of stopping you from going back to your dreams. They won’t make you hide under the bed because now you know that shrapnel easily get through furniture, so why even bother?

When you get up later, you go to check out the damages of the nasty mortar that disturbed your sleep. The last time I did that was about two weeks ago; a shell exploded near my house in the city center. As I approached the site, a man sat there, selling prickly pears on the sidewalk. He told me that the shell landed in the Polish Embassy yard, less than 30 meters away from where he put his red cart. Millions of Damascene people survive mortar attacks every day and that simple math is what makes it possible for us not to miss ordinary things like red prickly pears carts put out in the open.

People will continue to go to Abu Abdo and Abu Shakir, the two famous cocktail cabinets in Damascus, even though the later has recently suffered a vicious attack. These two holes in the wall are barely big enough to take orders. Those who go there must have their drinks and fruit salad plates in the open air, what many still do.

Coffeehouses attacked at noon will have to make all their repairs instantly. Customers will still want to come in the evening. Behind every laughter at these places there’s a sad story about a murdered relative, an immigrant friend, a lost business or a destroyed hometown. Hanging out with beloved ones, at least the ones who still haven’t left, has become peoples’ last peace resort during the oftentimes day-long power outage hours. They won’t give up that privilege, only because the place was bombed a few hours earlier.

These attacks have been going on for so long that students can no longer afford missing classes every time they expect bombardment. Now they go to school and feel glad when they return home without hearing any explosions. Parents won’t stop going to work because there is no choice but to provide for their families. Couples will not cancel their dates and married couples won’t stop multiplying. Now, we’re all used to this kind of daily Russian roulette, whose odds aren’t really that bad. It’s still scary as hell, but it’s worth gambling your life in order to have a life. Damascus may no longer be one of the safest cities in the world, but it’s still pretty much alive and buzzy.

We have been recently experiencing a new kind of attacks; Katyusha rocket attacks. These rockets are famous for their low accuracy, and the ones used against us are locally manufactured by amateurs in the outer Damascus area. They’re launched by the same group which is believed to fire most mortars against the capital. They call themselves the Islamic Union of Ajnad al-Sham, and they’re allies with the Saudi/Qatar backed Islam Army, under the recently formed Joint Command in Eastern Ghouta. They’ve published two video statements announcing operations al-Ajnad Rockets I, started on August 3, and al-Ajnad Rockets II (new URL), started on September 16. They even produced a trailer for their rockets.

Katyushas still haven’t been used on a large scale, so most people don’t know exactly what they’re up against. As they get to experience more of these rocket attacks, however, they tend to favor them to the nasty mortars. Unlike mortars, a Katyusha makes a whistling sound that one would confuse with an ambulance siren in the beginning. Once you realize it’s not an ambulance, you have a chance to run away from the sound, gradually getting louder, or take shelter inside a building. These rockets are also known for not splashing as much shrapnel as mortars, which perhaps makes them less deadly. The bad news is, though, that this branch of the insurgency doesn’t seem to be interested in replacing mortars with Katyushas. They obviously intend to use both kinds.

Jetfighters breaking the sound barrier follow shortly after mortar and rocket attacks. When you’re scared shitless, you can’t prevent the Dopamine rush after hearing the MiG fighter breaking through the air, wishing for that jet to get those bastards. But no matter how many airstrikes the army carries out, you’ll never feel safe, because you know there will be no end to it. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has failed for many years to take out Hamas’s rockets and tunnels in Gaza and their operations have often backfired, so why should the Syrian army be any different?

You come back to your senses and remember that only nonviolence and good politics can bring about an end to this episode of dark, dark history.

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