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Dispatches From Damascus: Silence and Noise in the Old City

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The sound of violence in surrounding suburbs has become a feature of life in Central Damascus. While the central parts of the capital have, for the most part, been spared the fighting that has beset some outer suburbs in recent months, residents here are frequently reminded of their precarious situation by the sound of explosions and gunfire emanating from surrounding suburbs.

At times it is the low-pitched boom of artillery fire that can be heard, as regime forces use the artillery stationed high on Jebel Qassyoun, the wide brown mountain that dominates the city from the north, to shell suburbs in which opposition forces have established a presence.

There are also the military helicopters whose long grey bodies can at times be seen passing over the city on their way to attack rebel positions. For the most part it is only the drone of their engines that one hears, but at other times they attack ground targets with heavy machine gun fire, or occasionally, rockets.

Sometimes we also hear other, seemingly random, explosions of varying strength -- perhaps bombs or mortar fire. Some of them sound soft and distant, while others are louder and more startling and feel more immediate and closer.

Then there is the sporadic small arms fire which also varies markedly in sound, depending on the distance and the calibre of the weapon being fired. At times it is a deep, heavy, slow-paced bang, at others a fast-paced soft popping sound.

Last Monday I was woken at around 7:30 a.m. by the sound of an explosion that seemed unusually close, and which I later discovered was a mortar round that fell just outside the old city. As the morning continued an artillery barrage began, this time directed at the suburb of Jobar. The suburb had been targeted before, but a resident of the area that I spoke to told me that Monday saw the heaviest bombardment the area had so far seen.

Meanwhile, in the nearby suburb of Qaboon -- which has frequently been the site of armed clashes in recent months -- an army helicopter was attacking opposition fighters. The rebels succeeded in shooting it down and the stricken helicopter could apparently be seen from as far away as Bab Touma square, as it hovered, in flames, before falling to the ground.

A few hours later the government responded by deploying one of its MiG fighter jets, which I heard as it flew eastwards over the city. A local friend, watching from the safety of the old city, described hearing the jet circle in the distance, before catching sight of it as its fuselage glinted in the sun. He then saw it enter into a near-vertical dive, at the bottom of which it dropped a bomb and pulled away, as a thick plume of black smoke rose from the ground.

The owner of my house waved away my impression that the explosions that morning had been unusually close. He assured me that what we had heard was merely the shelling of the outer suburbs, which, coming as it does from such an elevated position, can be heard clearly throughout Damascus. Another friend also sought to reassure me, telling me, perhaps as much to convince herself as anyone else, that everything just seems close when heard from within the old city.

At times, hours or even days can pass without any audible indication of violence. Even then, however, there are reminders of the crisis and the extent to which the residents of the old city are preoccupied.

On Wednesday evening the city seemed at peace as I strolled through the near-deserted streets of the old city's Christian quarter. Meanwhile, a pro-regime channel was broadcasting an interview with the president, Bashar Al-Assad, in which he spoke about the situation in Syria and his government's response. Every cafe, restaurant and shop that I passed had tuned their television to the interview, and the president's voice streamed out into the otherwise silent streets from seemingly every house.