‘No such thing as safety in Damascus,’ says resident after bloody market bombing

Senad Abu Uday opened his butcher shop in government-held Damascus during the daytime on Tuesday—an unusual choice, for him.

For the past several weeks, the 32-year-old resident of the Syrian capital’s Jaramana suburb has only worked in the evenings. Mortar shells and artillery fire from the rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs, directly north of Jaramana, lead many residents to stay inside during the day.

Even so, Abu Uday opened his shop at Jaramana’s central market early on Tuesday, expecting “good business” as residents prepared for Mother’s Day celebrations the following day, he tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed Al-Haj Ali.

Instead, Abu Uday witnessed one of the bloodiest bombings of government-held Damascus in recent years.

A rocket struck Jaramana’s crowded Kashkoul market that afternoon, killing 44 residents and injuring dozens more, Syrian state media agency SANA reported on Wednesday, citing the latest statistics released by Damascus police.

Tuesday’s market bombing comes within weeks of near-daily shelling and mortar attacks on Damascus reportedly carried out by rebel factions in East Ghouta, where pro-government forces are waging a massive ground offensive and aerial bombing campaign.

Shelling has injured more than 800 residents of government-held Damascus since mid-November 2017, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Wednesday.

Syria Direct contacted Wael Alwan, the spokesman for the rebel faction that controls territory north of Jaramana for comment on Wednesday, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

“There has been no such thing as safety in Damascus,” says Abu Uday, who is married with a four-year-old daughter.

“Today, people should be walking around, making Mother’s Day visits, but the streets are empty.”

Q: What did you see yesterday at the Kashkoul market? What was the scene before and after the bombing?

The market was full of people out buying gifts and food, preparing to celebrate Mother’s Day on Wednesday. Everything was normal. The market is at the center of the neighborhood, so it is always filled with people.

Suddenly, [I heard] a very loud noise coming from far away. I thought it was the sound of a plane—there are always planes in the sky, these days. The sound suddenly grew louder, and I heard an explosion. It was like a small earthquake.

Residents at the Kashkoul market in Jaramana following a rocket attack on Tuesday. Photo by AFP/SANA.

Everything happened in a very short amount of time—no more than 10 seconds. I immediately went outside my shop to see what happened and went straight to the site [of the bombing], about 200 meters away.

Q: What did you see and hear when you arrived at the site of the bombing?

Smoke still filled the air, and I heard screams coming from all around me—women and children. At that moment, I didn’t know what to do. Yes, I’m a butcher, but I can’t bear to look at a human being who is wounded and screaming from the pain. I tried to help some of the people on the ground and to get the children away from the area.

Ambulances came 10 minutes later to take people to the hospitals. They loaded two people into each ambulance because there were so many injured. Some residents transported the wounded in their cars. Half an hour later, the police came and made everyone back away from the area so first response teams could move around.

Even now, that first half hour after the rocket [hit] feels something like a dream when I think back to it. At that moment, I was just trying to help people anyway, but I didn’t really feel anything.

After the police came, I stayed to see what happened. It was only then that I took out my phone and found about 30 missed calls from my wife. I called her, and she was crying. She thought something had happened to me after hearing from our neighbors that the bombing was near my shop. I closed up shop and went home once things calmed down. My wife wasn’t convinced that I was okay until I made it back and she saw for herself.

Q: You live in Jaramana, a suburb of Damascus which has come under near-daily rocket fire and mortar attacks in recent weeks. But did you imagine that an attack as violent as yesterday’s could happen in your district?

I swear to you, these days there is nothing left to be afraid of because in this country everything that could happen, has happened.

Shells fall on Jaramana every day. Schools have closed on more than one occasion. At times, I don’t go to my shop during the day and only work at night. Yesterday I opened up my shop during the daytime because I expected good business at the market before Mother’s Day.

Q: Do you feel safe in the capital?

For the past four years, there has been no such thing as safety in Damascus. If I don’t die in a bombing, I might die in detention, in the army, after being kidnapped or hit by a stray bullet.

My family and I are in danger wherever we might go. Even if I lived in al-Maliki or Abu Romana [upper-class neighborhoods of Damascus, farther from the frontlines with rebel groups], a mortar shell could still fall. It no longer makes a difference to us. Whatever will happen, will happen.

My financial situation is okay. I can make ends meet for my family, but it would be difficult to move somewhere else. The rent is cheaper in Jaramana than in other areas. The residents are working class, down-on-their-luck people. They don’t have anywhere else to go.

Q: How has the shelling and mortar fire on Jaramana impacted your daily life? Have you and your family changed your routines and movement?  

It’s had a huge impact. We sit at home all day, and I don’t go out to see anyone or to walk in the street. [The shelling] makes no difference to me, but my wife barely lets me go out, especially on days when there’s bombing. Mostly, we stay in one [interior] room so that if there is a bombing, we’ll be far from the windows and doors.

Most things have changed in the neighborhood. People don’t leave home unless it’s for something essential. And when the first mortar falls, streets and markets empty immediately.

Today, people should be walking around, making Mother’s Day visits, but the street are empty.

With additional reporting by Lina al-Abed and Ismail al-Jamous.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.