DAMASCUS, Syria — 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.
"They want to take us back 100 years," Maha Shujaa, a 38-year-old interior designer and Assad supporter, said of the protesters.
"Who is going to protect me when the president goes, those bearded guys? No thanks," said Shujaa, who refused to divulge her religious identity, saying she is "a Syrian citizen."
Life in upscale Damascus areas like Abou Rummaneh, Mazzeh and the old city seems relatively normal. But lower-class neighborhoods like Midan, Barzeh and Kafar Souseh – dominated by Sunni Muslims who have been the backbone of the revolt – see frequent, small-scale anti-Assad rallies. Activists hold "flying protests," a sort of flash mob in which several dozen protesters convene suddenly on a street, chant and hold up banners, then disperse before security forces can move in. Activists record the rallies and post the video online.
Eruptions of gunfire are not uncommon, sometimes from security forces shooting at protesters but also reportedly from protesters opening fire on police.
On Monday, I watched busloads of security forces speed by the Interior Ministry, sending motorists fleeing out of their way – reportedly returning from a mission in Kfar Souseh to disperse mourners who turned a funeral into a protest.
Thick concrete blast walls and checkpoints now protect the entrances to ministries, security buildings and other state institutions. Guards check drivers' IDs.
Damascus has seen a string of three suicide bombings, the last one on Jan. 6, when a blast ripped through an intersection in the Midan neighborhood, killing 26 and wounding dozens. In December, twin suicide bombings hit two intelligence agencies in the capital, killing 44 people.
Assad's regime has touted the attacks as proof that it is being targeted by "terrorists." The opposition accuses forces loyal to the government of being behind the bombings to tarnish the uprising.
Many talk of an increase in crime in a city where the heavy grip of security forces long prevented any lawlessness. There are stories of friends of friends who were carjacked, or of families held at gunpoint in their homes by robbers demanding ransoms – all difficult to confirm, but a clear sign of the widespread worry.
The cost of cigarettes, meat, eggs and milk have almost tripled, residents say. A canister of cooking gas used to cost 200 Syrian pounds, the equivalent of $3.50, and now sells for 500 pounds (about $9). Because of economic sanctions, everything imported is now either in short supply or sold at triple the price. The cost of meat and vegetables has doubled, and residents say the same is true for even locally produced goods.
The daily cutoffs in electricity are blamed on power rationing and diesel shortages caused by recent blasts that targeted fuel pipelines in and around Homs, the country's most restive city, which has been the center of a bloody government siege for the past month.
Mohammad al-Ali, a 22-year-old civil engineering student, said those daily hardships were nothing compared to what might happen if Syria disintegrates or descends into civil war.
"We have seen samples of the American democracy and what it brought to Iraq and Libya. Those countries have been destroyed," he said.
"We don't wish this for ourselves."