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Photo Gallery: Blocking Out the War

Foto: Christian Werner / Zeitenspiegel / DER SPIEGEL

Damascus Nights Despair and Debauchery in Assad's Capital

Even as war rages around them, residents of Damascus, the capital of Bashar Assad's Syria, seek to tune out the violence. The city's nightlife has blossomed as the country's Russian-backed military has pushed back the front. Those dissidents that remain have been forced into hiding.

Just before sunrise on a clear autumn morning, a minibus leaves Damascus. It initially detours around the Northern Highway to avoid the snipers who could be waiting in ambush near the front. Later, it will return to the highway and speed northwards toward the coastal range. It is heading for Homs.

Inside the bus on this Thursday morning are six people, all of whom live in the part of Syria controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad. They are members of the Phoenix Adventure hiking group: a bartender, a university student, a designer, a sports enthusiast, a coach, a beautician and a German shepherd. They are planning on spending the day in the great outdoors.

The mood is cheerful. "Adventure awaits!" the barkeeper, Kinan Haddad, calls out, his voice still a bit groggy.

As the bus struggles up the side of Mt. Qasioun, Damascus, the capital of Assad's regime, is left behind -- an endless sea of gray-brown buildings with minarets and church steeples jutting into the early morning smog. The presidential palace, sturdy as a bunker, stands on a hill flanking the barren mountain -- while down below, the city cowers partly in fear and partly in spite.

Elida Sanjar, 21, a student of economics with pink fingernails, slumps on one of the narrow seats, exhausted from the previous night of partying. She says she supports Assad because she is happy that she can continue studying economics and going to parties. Particularly now that fewer shells are landing on the capital city.

The Only Thing He Cares About

Her boyfriend, the barkeeper Kinan, is sitting beside her. Small, sturdy and prematurely balding, he has a boyish laugh and dark rings around his eyes. "Yolo," he says: "You only live once." Almost all of his friends have fled to Europe, but he decided to open a bar instead and now parties as often as he can. The state, he says, only still exists in places where the regime has control. And the stability it provides is the only thing he cares about.

All of the people in the bus have different reasons for supporting the regime. But there is one thing they share: the fear of Islamic State  (IS). It is a product of Assad's successful strategy of posing as the lesser of myriad evils: Even as millions have fled the country to escape the horrors of war, IS has also driven many people into Assad's arms.

Map of Damascus

Map of Damascus

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

As the minibus heads toward Homs, the bombardment of the rebel bastion in eastern Aleppo  continues apace, with Russian and Syrian jets and helicopters dropping their bombs as Shiite militias conquer neighborhood after neighborhood. The regime, supported by both Iran and Russia, is working its way slowly toward a military victory in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, one that could mark a turning point for the country. The group of hikers offers only curt replies when asked about the bombs that are currently falling on the schools and hospitals of Aleppo.

Kinan says: That's how war is.

Elida: What else can the government do? They have to defend Damascus. We have to survive.

The group leader says: The civilians of Aleppo are to blame. They provide shelter to the terrorists.

'I Love Damascus'

At first glance, life looks as normal as ever in the hiking group's home of Damascus, 350 kilometers south of Aleppo. In the city center, the only indication that a war is going on is the myriad checkpoints and the posters of the martyrs that hang everywhere. The souk markets in the winding streets of the Old Town are full of people. Carpets and mobile phone cases are on display, there is gold and silver for sale along with stands selling lace underwear and bras whose clasps open when you clap your hands.

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2016 (December 10, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

The cooks in the Old Town grill their famous kebabs, the marble floors of the boutique hotel courtyards are once again heated for winter and pilgrims continue to come from far away to visit the Umayyad Mosque. Visitors to the opulent opera house wear suits and evening gowns while the announcements are still made in English, French and Arabic, almost as though Damascus were still the cosmopolitan metropolis it once was.

On the square in front of the opera house, giant lettering has recently been mounted reading: "I Love Damascus." It was put there as part of an advertising campaign run by the city marketing department, which also used to hold a marathon. Professionally produced drone videos have been made to show off the city. The capital is Assad's fortress, his strongest front in the propaganda war. The message is clear: Damascus is normal and life goes on where the regime is in charge.

That's also why there is no visible destruction in the city center. When shells fall on the Old Town and surrounding neighborhoods, craftsmen move in on the heels of the ambulances to cover up the traces of war. Assad does all he can to present an image of a prosperous metropolis to the destroyed remnants of his country -- a country that was once Syria.

Two hours later, with the sun now high in the sky, the hiking group's minibus skirts the city of Homs, where the rebellion once flourished and which has been brutally punished by Assad in return. Today, large parts of Homs are little more than a ghost town and smoke rises from the ruins that pass by in the distance. No one from the Phoenix group takes notice, preferring instead to chat about beer -- specifically about the fact that, because all of the Syrian breweries have been destroyed, they are forced to drink beer from Lebanon, which, they complain, doesn't taste nearly as good as Syrian suds.

Nothing In Between

Come to Latakia, a hiker calls from the back of the bus. Latakia is Assad's stronghold, the Ibiza of Syria located on the Mediterranean coast. "There are great parties in Aleppo too. Still!" the group leader exclaims. The marketing clips of nights out in western Aleppo, released by the regime as part of its propaganda campaign, are accurate, he says. The bizarre tourism videos from September show an untouched western Aleppo with its immaculate green spaces, turquoise hotel swimming pools and packed nightclubs.

But the gaps in this narrative aren't difficult to find, even in Damascus. The economy is in a shambles, the salesmen complain of plunging revenues and the 1.8 million refugees who have found shelter in the city and its surroundings fear the winter. Very few of them can afford the oil for the small metal stoves the poor here use for heating. In some cases, up to 10 families live in a single house in the Old Town.

The roar of diesel generators reverberates through the streets, the result of electricity only being available for a few hours at a time. In the impoverished neighborhoods, residents save the little electricity they get in car batteries from Taiwan. Inflation eats up people's salaries and is destroying the middle class, with the Syrian pound only worth a 10th of its prewar value. In Damascus, people are either rich or poor. There is little in between.

Up on his hilltop, Assad continues to try to pose as a protective father. But the people below have lost their stability. A psychologist reports that the demand for psychotropic drugs has risen significantly and he deplores the sanctions that prevent the arrival of fresh supplies. In cafés, people say that many civilians have obtained gun licenses because the criminals have become increasingly brazen.

Hundreds of fighters from IS and the radical Islamist rebel group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are still in the former Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, located in Damascus just four kilometers from the dance floors and the bars. The fighters have bored tunnels beneath the entire quarter, using them to crawl under their adversary's positions. Shots from snipers occasionally ring out among the destroyed buildings.

Those who aren't forced to look at the violence try to block it out. Many of the young people who have come to terms with the war no longer read the news; they don't want to know what exactly is taking place in Aleppo. "The less you know, the better your life," says the bartender Kinan. They flee into their fantasy worlds, go hiking, smoke marijuana, take sedatives, get drunk at parties or seal themselves off. Most of the others have already left the country .

But a lot of others in the city have lost the ability to smile. They are the ones who continue following the news. Life, they say, has become black and white, and no matter which side they are on, they are tired. And sad. Depressed. Because their country is dying.

Escape to Hedonism

Tens of thousands of others, meanwhile, can't be seen on the streets at all. They are hiding in apartments and basements from military service and the secret services. They are hiding from torture and death.

Damascus has become a triptych of hedonism, fear and ruin.

The hiking group's bus stops in Wadi al-Nasara, the Valley of the Christians, at an old monastery. The hillsides are green and the valley near the border with Lebanon is full of small villages. There hasn't been any significant fighting here for some time. The hike's destination is the Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers.

For four hours, the group fights its way through a forest of Lebanon oak and the thorny undergrowth. But there is plenty of laughter. The group laughs about slips on the muddy ground, about Bruno the German shepherd and about Elida, who keeps asking: "How do I look?" She has brought two Bluetooth speakers along, out of which music blares. Two Russian Mi-8 transport helicopters fly through the valley, but nobody knows where they are headed. Every now and then, the sound of gunfire echoes through the hills, but nobody knows where it comes from.

Shortly before the sun dips behind the hills, just shy of the fortress, the group hikes through the village of al-Hassan. It lies in ruins, the houses abandoned and riddled with holes. Elida and Kinan are holding hands, the backs of which still bear the stamps from the party they went to the night before.

Later, the bus once again turns onto the highway, this time heading back to Damascus. It is Friday evening and young men and women will stream into the bars in Bab Sharqi and Bab Tuma. Kinan has to work at the bar and Elida is in the mood to smoke a joint.

Kinan named his bar Nostalgia because he wants his guests to think about the better days before the war. He hung brick-patterned wallpaper on the walls, which he then decorated with pictures of Bob Marley, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.

Just one year ago, he says, there wasn't much of a nightlife. "Everyone was afraid to leave their homes." Shells were regularly fired from the neighborhoods still under rebel control. Now, though, the eastern side of the Old Town is packed with bars and Kinan also has a theory as to why that is: Everything is so much more depressing when you are sober. "People are smoking weed like crazy, they drink and snort cocaine and take Captagon," he says.

'A Bar in a Bunker'

"I don't pay any attention anymore to what the future holds," he says smiling. He is fully aware that the endless party in Damascus may seem irreverent to many. But, he says, you're only young once.

At that exact moment, three shells hit not far away, one after the other -- loud, thumping explosions. Kinan doesn't even twitch an eyelash. Instead, he opens a beer. "A bar in a bunker," he says. "That is my dream."

It later becomes clear that the shells struck a couple of hundred meters away. The first hit a house shared by four refugee families, the second landed in a playground and the third struck in front of a barber shop, with a piece of shrapnel tearing open the barber's leg. A Philippine maid lost a leg. The explosives had been fired by fighters in Jobar, a Damascus neighborhood where government troops have recently stepped up their attacks.

For many years prior to the war, Kinan worked in the anti-fraud unit of a bank. But when the EU and the USA slapped new sanctions on Syria in spring 2011 and when the Syrian civil war moved so close to Damascus that many began doubting whether Assad would be able to hang on, the economy collapsed.

Being a banker made no sense anymore. Kinan hung on for five years and finally opened his bar in July.

The first guests arrive early in the evening. A group of female university students order a bottle of whiskey and not even an hour later, one of them is standing on the table and pouring hard liquor into small glasses. At around 9 p.m., Kinan grabs his jacket and heads out to begin partying himself. Nobody talks about the attacks earlier in the day.

Fighting by Day, Partying by Night

He walks toward Bab Tuma, one of the ancient gates leading into the Old Town. Cars surge through the narrow streets, all heading toward the new nightlife district of Bab Sharqi, where churches and mosques stand next to two-story houses with crooked bay windows. It is the most important district for the city's Christians.

Shells and missiles were unable to dislodge them and they remained loyal to the government. But now the church has begun protesting the noise that has come along with the nightlife. The crowds, and the cars of the militia members who fight for the regime by day and party here by night, are too loud for them. Since the bars began opening, one priest says, increasing numbers of Christians have left the quarter. He thinks that it's part of a plan to drive them away. Recently, he says, he was attacked by a drunken militia member.

In La Marionnette, a dimly lit bar with old film posters on the walls, all the tables are full and the area around the bar is packed. Music from the Berlin record label Bar25 is blaring from the speakers. Kinan and Elida order shots.

Their Syria is not the one that has been forgotten by the world. It is not the Syria where the ruler bombs and starves his own citizens. It is not the Syria of the besieged suburbs surrounding the capital. Kinan's and Elida's Damascus is being helped -- by Hezbollah, Russia and Iran.

But the war has divided the city into two parts, just as it has split the country -- separating those who have come to terms with the regime and those who haven't, can't or don't want to. Those are the ones that nobody is helping anymore, the people who began peacefully demonstrating against the government in 2011, giving birth to a revolution that is currently dying as the world looks on.

One of them lives in Jaramana, a poor suburb just southeast of the Damascus city limits where power lines crisscross among coarsely plastered buildings. He has asked to be called Houssam for this story and the longest walk he has taken in the last year is the short trek to the convenience store at the end of the street. He can't go any further because, like tens of thousands of other young men in areas of Syria under Assad's control, he is in hiding.

Trapped in a Street

Many are being hunted down for political reasons, but even more are hiding to avoid conscription. Houssam is one of the latter, not wanting to fight for the regime against which he has spent 16 years protesting. By law, he should have joined the military four years ago. Ever since Oct. 18, 2015, when soldiers in civilian clothes combed through the streets and rounded up thousands of young men, he hasn't left his small street.

Houssam used to be a lawyer. When the protests began in 2011, he woke up from a political lethargy into which he had plunged as a result of his last stint in prison. He took to the streets and joined the demonstrations -- a painful choice, because during his imprisonment, his knees and ankles had been beaten to a pulp with plastic pipes.

Then the war began. He was arrested once again, tortured and released. Houssam does not receive visitors at his home, it is too risky, but he does accept telephone calls and we spoke with him every day for a week.

On this Sunday, he says, he is sitting like he does every day in the small apartment where he lives together with his wife and daughter. He lives off of money that he gets from his parents and, sometimes, from his friends. "Winter is coming," he says. "How am I supposed to get money for heating oil?" It is a question he asks himself almost every day: He doesn't have enough money for food, rent or oil. But his primary concern is survival.

"Either you are with the regime or you are an enemy. You are either part of a militia, or you are a man filled with fear," he says. The regime, he continues, monitors its territory ruthlessly. "If it's not the secret services keeping tabs on what you do, then it's the society, the neighbors." There is a saying in Damascus, he says: We gather to drink, and we drink out of fear of the others.

He says he never wanted to leave his country. "I thought we had a duty to fill the streets until the regime disappeared. But I can't do it anymore." Of the 50 people with whom he used to regularly meet in living rooms to talk politics at the beginning of the uprising, maybe 10 are still in Damascus, he says. "The others were sent to the front to get rid of them."

'Closer and Closer'

On this Sunday, he says, his wife brought home a friend of hers. Her son, he says, is eight years old and her daughters died in a mortar attack. The boy, he continues, suffers from severe depression; he has tried to kill himself several times and doesn't speak anymore. Houssam says that he left the room where his wife and the friend were talking: "I can't listen to such stories anymore."

Today, he says he heard from an acquaintance who lives in the outskirts of the city. "The government has begun searching through the hollowed-out buildings there," he says. Such structures are where many refugees seek shelter, despite the lack of doors, windows, water or electricity. Rent for such a spot is $50 per month. "Now, they are pulling out the men who are of military age," Houssam says. "They are getting closer and closer," he adds before hanging up.

Those who profit from the war are indeed quite close, just a couple hundred meters away from his house, and they are fast and easy with their money. They are militia members conducting the war on Assad's behalf because his regular army has long since taken a backseat. The militias prop up the regime and behave in Damascus as though they were its masters.

On an arterial heading toward Jaramana at the edge of the city, just after a string of bombed-out buildings, there is an entire row of bordellos, one after the other: the Mortar, the Miami, Cleopatra, the Rose of Fuat. Huge SUVs fight for space with dilapidated taxis, fat Mercedes sedans crawl through the streets, their windows tinted.

There have always been bordellos in Damascus. On Marjeh Square, just outside the Old Town, the pimps used to furtively whisper to passersby: "Istiraha?" Break? and the top floors of the hotels were reserved for prostitutes. But the young Assad didn't approve and in the mid-2000s, he restricted prostitution. Since the war came to Syria, the trade in sex has once again blossomed.

The bordellos are the last stage of escapism. It is here where those who are fighting the war, those who kill, torture, plunder and steal, seek solace.

Nobody Seems to Care

At the Violine Cabaret, an emaciated prostitute in a pink knit skirt stumbles up to a table. A man in a black jacket is sitting there, the collar of his shirt opened wide. Using his credit card, he has chopped a long line of cocaine on the table and snorts it through a rolled-up 1,000 pound bill. He chops a second line for a second girl and in a practiced motion he massages the rest of the powder into his gums. Nobody seems to care.

On stage, a corpulent woman lounges in a tight, black dress, her face hidden behind a thick mask of make-up. She is singing about love.

The men have nine-millimeter pistols shoved into their waistbands. Some of them are holding bundles of notes in their hand, out of which they occasionally theatrically pull a bill and throw it onto the stage to pay the fat singer. It is a symbol of their power.

Some of the men are army officers, but most of them are from the National Defense Forces, a conglomerate of volunteer militias under government control that operate not unlike a crime syndicate. NDF members plunder, steal, kidnap and sell drugs -- and the regime is powerless to do anything about it. In an interview with SPIEGEL, Ali Haidar, the minister of state for national reconciliation affairs, said that the army isn't strong enough to stop them.

War always produces a wartime economy, which puts money in the pockets of minions and henchmen. Here, the militias are getting rich from the collapse of the state.

The End of Taboos

Rim, the prostitute at table two, has tattooed eyebrows and thin lips that she has broadened with lipstick to please the customers. She is 37 years old and has two daughters that she has to bring through this war any way she can. Seven years ago, her ex-husband's parents threw her out of the house after he had left her. Initially, she slept on the streets with one of her daughters. Now, she is working in Violine Cabaret.

She takes a drag from her cigarette. "It is a stable job in wartime," she says. She wants to be able to pay for her daughter's ballet lessons and put food on the table. And that's really the extent of her ambition.

The war is destroying the city, driving its residents to flight and wearing them down. It has also sexualized them. If it's not clear that you'll live until tomorrow, taboos don't count for much. One now sees young men and women making out on the streets, pushing themselves into the building entranceways of Bab Tuma. And the men come here, to Jaramana.

On this evening, Kinan and Elida, the young couple from the hiking group, are sitting in the Zodiac Bar, drinking hard liquor to loud techno music. The previous afternoon, two shells exploded not 100 meters away, killing two men.

As the two walked by the site, painters were just covering up the last traces of the explosion. They sip drink after drink. Yolo. Then Kinan takes Elida home through the scenic city streets where well-dressed revelers are partying and lowered cars are heading for Jaramana.

As absurd as it might sound, Damascus is still a beautiful city. It is still functioning. On the surface, at least. Below the surface, it is bleeding to death, grinding down its residents who fearfully gather behind their ruler on the hill. Or they flee. Or they die.

With reporting by Riham Alkousaa
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