“The unbearable lightness of being.” I apologise to Milan Kundera, who wrote the line. But this is Damascus and that is the only title. I was on the phone less than 24 hours ago, offering my pathetic condolences to an old friend. “Thank you for calling, Robert,” was all he could say, in tears. We had been chatting in the morning, arranging to meet later in the day. Then at two o’clock in the afternoon, on the way to her home, his mother – at the wheel for she was an engineer – was murdered. A single shot. The only shot fired into the car. And it killed her. She was buried yesterday morning, in the beautiful hill village above Latakia.
My friend had told me that as a journalist, he walked on ice. It was becoming more and more dangerous to go to his family home. His father is a retired army officer who served in Lebanon. A proud family, loyal to the regime but free with its criticism. Victims, all of them now, of the President’s enemies.
Within hours, I am in a restaurant on the Mezzeh boulevard; swish cars, fine food, laid-back middle-class customers, 10 at night, talking freely, all of them contemptuous (fearful too?) of al-Nusrah Islamists – and a sentence pops up in the middle of a conversation with a good friend, a lawyer. “Three of my employees were murdered,” he says. “They were taken from their car north of Deraa. They were tortured first, then murdered. They were Alawites.”
I am taken aback by the frankness of it all. The suddenness with which it enters our conversation. When I tell him about my friend’s mother and tell him I am upset, he says simply: “That’s because you don’t live here all the time.” And it’s true, you hear things in Damascus and, after a few hours, the human double-take stops operating. I am chatting to a government official, and out of the blue she tells me that a member of her family was murdered.
His head was cut off – by a young boy. His execution was videotaped by his killers. She actually saw the video of his decapitation. I am stunned. Or am I? Damascenes no longer are. Nor, I fear, is the rest of Syria. Listen to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and they talk of their losses – a baby to government air strikes, a husband missing to the intelligence services – with the same bleak nonchalance.
I drop by to speak to a minister, an adviser to Assad – and discover that she now starts her day with yoga sessions. Yoga! In Damascus? She is a prolific author. Her new book contains hitherto confidential Syrian documents on the secret Clinton-Hafez al-Assad negotiations and she is optimistic, talking of government army gains. I am more circumspect.
A businessman admits that he “let go” an employee because he was a Sunni Muslim. You simply have to look after yourself, he explains. I am shocked, like a good Westerner should be. This is the sectarian wedge in all its reality, right there, freely admitted. But then, of course, there is the old question. What would I have done if I were a Syrian Christian?
Then yesterday afternoon, I am chatting to another confidant, a man involved in children’s charities. I assume the people of Damascus have taken in the shock of war. “No, we don’t know what it’s like – we haven’t really seen it yet,” he replies. “A lot of people don’t understand it. The people who carry bodies from Douma, they understand it. But I don’t have the guts to go and do that, to carry bodies.” A jet flies over us and there is the smack of an air-dropped bomb, almost certainly on the opposition-held suburb of Daraya. The windows rattle appropriately, a slight change of air pressure.
At my hotel, the staff watch television, one of them literally open-mouthed, as captured rebels explain the details of their battle against the government, how money arrives in untold quantities from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. When one of the prisoners speaks, his face is inter-cut with videotape of his own press conference after originally defecting from the government army. There he is in green uniform, a bearded member of the Free Syria Army, self-confident, safe. And then he is back full-face on television, a bamboo curtain behind him to screen the walls of his Damascus dungeon.
In one way, I fear all Damascus is a dungeon. Or do you have to live here to appreciate that?