Leaving the normality of Damascus for the killing fields
Leaving the last suburb of southern Damascus, Jaramana, is to leave the last area of normality – by which I mean people on the streets, shops open, car horns fighting their way through the chronic congestion.
Then you swing out onto the four-lane carriageway that leads through the pine forests on the half-hour journey to the airport. But suddenly those people, those shops, those vehicles are no more.
Our driver begins to floor it and our van, at 80mph or 90mph, produces a bizarre whine: the sound of tyres on tarmac which is deeply rutted by tank tracks.
And there they are, tanks in desert colours, flanking the road either side in groups of two or three, or dug in to revetments and firing out from the road itself.
There are tanks on every bridge that we pass. We slow on the inside lane and tuck in beside the engine unit of an articulated lorry. It seems to afford some kind of protection.
From either side, the sound of mortars, artillery, and small arms fire can be heard, even in the din of driving on a rutted road.
It’s every man for himself here. Cars are driving the wrong way up both carriageways, headlights and hazards on. You cannot cross the barriers of the central reservation, so nobody will risk driving several miles in the wrong direction. You just hit the airport road and drive the way you want to go, regardless of whether it’s the right or wrong carriageway.
Mercifully, there are hardly any vehicles around here, for obvious reasons. After a mile or two, our protective articulated truck pulls over – perhaps he’s having second thoughts – leaving us another couple of miles before we can cross over a bridge to the other side of the carriageway and head back to town and safety.
As we do so, the elevation gives you a bizarre sense of the killing fields around eight miles from the airport. There is a large conference centre, deserted and full of shell holes.
A newly built hotel stands abandoned, the front gate blown in. What was until recently a large country villa with its own swimming pool and grapevined pergolas is a wrecked tangle of shattered tiles, brickwork and twisted telephone wires.
There’s been fighting over the airport for 10 days now, and this is the level of control the government has on just the first half of the journey from the city to the airport.
It was at this point, with the sun going down, that we decided to take that bridge, make our exit, and rejoin the carriageway heading back into the land of traffic jams, of open shops, of schoolchildren coming home from their day, to Jaramana and the land of safety.
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