"Everything is fine."
RIF DIMASHQ — If you go to Damascus and ask a taxi driver to take you to the suburb of Harasta, you will not find it. Nor will you find Jobar. You will not find al-Hajar al-Aswad, either. Nor Qaddam. You will find half of Douma, three quarters of Daraya. Zamalka you will not find.
What you will find in place of these villages in the Damascus countryside, which the Syrian army reclaimed from the rebels in August and September, is the rubble of war. Rows of four- and five- and six-story buildings razed to their foundations. Symmetrical heaps of broken masonry, neatly setting off the original real estate lots -- and then whole oceans of stone, with jagged waves. Electricity poles shattered at the trunk like felled trees, their tangle of wires branching in the dirt. Cars flattened as at the junk yard. Buses riddled with bullets. Apartment buildings with their fronts sheared off, so that you get an axial view of the floors, furniture and tenants gone missing.
The Damascus outskirts are not entirely unpeopled, however. I'm in the cab with Khalid, driving from Douma, the half-destroyed district northeast of the capital city, south along the smooth, deserted Hafez al-Assad highway. "Jobar," Khalid points left across the highway to hulks of buildings heavily shelled yet erect amid the ruins. "We cannot go in. If we go in, they will kill us."
"Both sides, the jaysh al-suri and the jaysh al-hur," the Syrian government army and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a collection of anti-government fighters and army defectors. "They are in there" -- I peer down the narrow, empty streets as we drive slowly past -- "but they fight at night."
Night-fighting goes on among the alleyways and rooftops and oblique angles of Zamalka and Ain Terma, too. But not in Jaramana, a town southeast of Damascus that appears entirely unscathed, where people fill the streets and merchants hawk their wares. Even the drabness remains undisturbed. The only sign that something is rotten is the garbage that remains uncollected by the curbs. "Why no damages?" I ask.
"They support Assad."
"Why do they support Assad and their neighbors don't?"
"Bee-khafuu," They are scared. That they are mostly Christian and Druze might also have something to do with it. The Assads are Alawites, a Shiite Muslim offshoot, and the minorities have largely stuck together, fearful of a takeover by the Sunni majority.
Returning north, we see a white-haired man trudging across the grassless median. He tells us he is going home. Where is home? "Zamalka." How are you? "Mneeh," fine. How is everything? "Kil shee mneeh," everything is fine. Are they any problems? "Maa fee mashakil," there are no problems. We say our goodbyes.
"Kil shee mneeh," Khalid repeats, as we drive off. He points to one of Zamalka's leveled buildings, lifts his hands, palms to the ground, and brings them down. "Bee-khaf," He is afraid.
He has good reason to be afraid. Within minutes, we see a security officer leading a man in handcuffs across the highway. The officer turns to us with the snarl of a carnivore who has caught his prey. The detained has the look of one upon whom the reason why his wrists are hurting is slowly dawning. "Harasta," Khalid points to the ghost town -- once the scene of thousands-strong protests -- on the right. "Jaysh," he looks out the window at the army quarters on our left. A giant billboard image of President Bashar al-Assad looms over the sandbagged gate.
Passing a row of flattened structures, Khalid says, "kanabil foraghieh." He sucks in and brings his palms together. "Suction bombs?" He nods his head. It is difficult to verify the claim, and I know of no reports that make the allegation. But implosive or explosive, the weapons -- including aerial and artillery fire -- have done their job well.
Khalid is young, short, dark, bearded, Sunni, illiterate, and fearless. "B-khaaf aleik," I am afraid for you, he tells me.
Do you support Assad? "No." Why not? "He killed 10 of my friends." Do you know the rebels? "They are my friends." Before the war started, did you like Assad? "Yes. Very much." Why did you change? "He killed my friends." Why don't you join the rebels? "Maa bhebb el asliha," I don't like weapons. What kind of government do you want? "Muslim."
I ask Khalid to take me to his hometown in the countryside. "Mish mumkin," not possible. Why not? "Shabbiha bil hawajaz," Pro-government militias control the checkpoints in town. "They will kill you when they see your American passport."
In contrast to the feared shabbiha, the army is more restrained -- toward foreigners, that is. Driving through the southern suburbs of Adem al-Ass, Lawan, and Kfar Sousah, we come to the town of Daraya, where 400 bodies were found in late August in what appeared to be the worst single massacre by regime forces in the country's then-17-month civil war. The dead have long since been buried in mass graves, a few men in earth-colored tunics now move along the dusty streets, and a shop or two is open. Many of the buildings bear the scars of war -- walls pocked by machine-gun fire and ridden with the grapefruit-sized concavities caused by mortars, former tenants dead, imprisoned, or displaced. Revolutionary graffiti, trumpeting, for example, "We want justice and equality," covers all walls, much of it spray-painted over by the government troops stationed in town.
A mound of rubble at the end of one street forces a detour. The alternative route leads across rocky terrain to a checkpoint. Khalid hands his identity card through the window. At the sight of my American passport, the soldier asks me to step out of the car.
"Shuu amtamal hawn?" What are you doing here?
"Inta mujrim?" Are you a criminal?
"Laa. Anna istez bil jamiaat amreekeeyeh bil beyrut," No. I'm a professor at American University of Beirut.
"Andak fard?" Do you have a gun? He waves his Kalashnikov at me.
"Laa," I laugh, pulling out my cell phone and wallet.
He lets me go. We ride on, through the southern suburbs of Damascus. The shelled facades and blackened graffiti and gray, listless aspect of the town of Nahr al-Ayshi are grimly familiar by now. In Sbeineh, checkpoints choke the traffic on the main street. Tanks stationed every 500 meters have made the median their own. Their muzzles point at a 45-degree angle toward the residential buildings opposite. Soldiers sit protected from the sun under tarpaulins, resting before the night's inevitable skirmishes.
We slow as we reach al-Hajar al-Aswad, a key front in the army's counteroffensive against the rebels in August and September. The destruction here is on the near-total scale of Harasta, Jobar, and Zamalka to the north and Qaddam the next town over: Districts where the water and electricity have been cut off, most residents have fled, and scattered rebels remain to harass army units at stations and checkpoints nearby. But a few people can be seen trickling about in this city that before the war was the 13th-largest in Syria, with 96,000 residents. Three elderly women in black abayas edge along the shaded side of the road. No cars block their way -- only a pile of ruins. A couple of men huddle among themselves on a corner. A young man sits on the curb, smoking. An apartment building missing its front wall exposes an elderly man on the third floor hauling away a large wooden board from the wreckage of his apartment.
Resignation is the keynote here: a victor-or-vanquished calculus concedes little to those who lose. Even the buildings look resigned -- to ruination, and to the post-battle plundering that Khalid says regime forces regularly carry out in the districts they've subdued.