25 Jul 2012

Tense times in Damascus as fighting erupts again

From the hotel in which Herve is talking, immaculately suited as always, you can hear the shells exploding. It is that close.

From the hotel in which Herve is explaining the “delicacy” of the situation in perfect English diplo-speak, you can see the smoke rising into the still, hot summer air.

From the hotel in which the UN under secretary-general for peacekeeping is talking about polarities and atmospherics, the scream of ambulance sirens pierces the immediate atmosphere somewhat tellingly.

Drive south, all of a couple of miles at the very most, and you are close to the smoke of Kadam where fighting has raged for much of the day today.

The war has retuned to the Damascene suburbs with a vengeance. From our vantage point on top of a block of flats we crouch because of possible sniper fire.

Black smoke is curling into the air from series of fires across the suburb. Tankshells explode, there are short burst of machinegun and automatic rifle fire.

No wonder, back at the hotel, our UN Under Secratary-General Herve Ladsous agreed with Channel 4 News that the violence is  increasing, not decreasing as per UN demands.

In short, the UN is being heard by both sides and ignored by both sides.

We see people desperately fleeing across the fields from the fighting.

Young men gather around us and say it is the Syrian Army who are setting people’s houses on fire. One, faced covered in makeshift keffeyeh scarf, says it will go on until the revolution is successful and all around they break into chants of  “Allahu Akhbar” – god is great.

You don’t say things like that on camera.

Speaking of cameras, at an army checkpoint we film a soldier manhandling a man who had already been beaten on his back. Against all odds the soldier sees our small camera and shouts at our vehicle to stop.

In the confusion our driver does the exact opposite and suddenly I see the soldier loose off two warning shots in the air.

We fail to stop quick enough and seconds later the back windscreen explodes in smithereens. We later see two bullet holes in the back of the vehicle.

These are tense times in the capital and one false move or hesitation can lead in a blink to stressed out young men firing their Kalashnikovs at you.

Suddenly everyone is yelling and we exit the vehicle hands up. As you do. And from that point things calm down steadily as we are led away, waving our filming permit.

The soldiers are calm and professional. Our tape is confiscated but they are concerned that nothing else has been lost. Like our lives.

If today is anything to go on, the steady reduction of violence in the capital has – in one district at least – turned again, as the smoke of fighting hangs over the southern suburbs.

The regime has certainly pushed fighters out of most areas where they were positioned, but have they merely moved them around to another place, to fight again as they have today?

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