Not all the violence is political; some of it is for profit. Syrians speak of children from wealthy families who have been kidnapped for ransom money. Two children were recently kidnapped and held for $2 million, a fee that was eventually negotiated down to $400,000, says a local source. Theft, previously a rarity in Syria, is also on the rise.
"We hoped this would be over quickly, but it won't be," worries a 45-year-old father of two, a prosperous member of Syria's business elite. "I want to stay, but what does this do to my children? I don't let them out in the evening. They can't talk freely. Seeing horrible images has become normal to them."
For months, he has been agonizing over whether to leave the country, increasingly traveling across the border with Lebanon, where many families escape for the weekend. His wife wouldn't discuss leaving at first, but in the last month that changed as the realization dawned that bloody conflict had become the new normal in Syria. Now, like many other wealthy parents, he has enrolled his children in a school abroad for the upcoming school year.
For Alia, a young mother of three in a restless neighborhood of Damascus, it is economic necessity that is pushing her to pack up and leave. Syria's economy has been decimated by the last 15 months of unrest, as well as international sanctions applied by the United States and the European Union. Farming and industry have ground to a halt in many areas, the value of the Syrian pound has plummeted, and tourism -- a growing industry before the uprising that accounted for some 10 percent of the country's economy -- has all but disappeared. For a year, Alia's husband managed to get by without earning anything from his travel agency. But a fortnight ago, he packed his bags and set off to find them a home elsewhere in the region. "We hope to go to Saudi Arabia," she says, eyeing her ornate living room, filled with plastic flowers and books from her Islamic studies, as if for the last time. "This is home, but what can we do? What can we do?"
Meanwhile, Syrians who have left already are no less conflicted by their decision. It's not only the pain of missing home that vexes them, but the feeling of growing ever more disconnected from those on the ground. "I thought I could do more outside because seeing the Syrian National Council [whose leaders are mostly in exile] from inside was so depressing," says Fawaz Tello, a veteran dissident who left the country after coming under threat at the end of last year. "But sometimes I wish I hadn't left because being close to the revolution's activists is purer than being outside."
This sort of mass exodus is, of course, exactly what Syria's regime wants: If it can't kill all its opponents inside the country, at least it can force the rest to flee. Despite a recent regulation that young men under 42 couldn't travel without government permission -- a measure that was revoked 24 hours after it was applied -- the departures benefit the regime, even though they may be fatal for Syria itself.
The loss has simultaneously hollowed out the cultural, economic, and political heart of the country. And however the uprising plays out, this drain of expertise -- in tandem with economic sanctions that have pushed up prices and resulted in shortages of fuel and gas for cooking and heating -- could set Syria back years.
In Damascus, an artist sits in his house cradling a glass of wine. "I didn't think it would come to this," he says. "This beautiful revolution has changed. All my friends have left. The regime is happy to send the country back by 100 years, more. I can't live like this."