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In Syria’s capital, war surrounds residents living in a bubble

DAMASCUS, Syria — The thud of an artillery round hardly drew a reaction from the many people lingering, apparently carefree, Monday near Jaheth Park, a stretch of green in this Syrian capital’s upscale Abu Rummaneh district.

“From inside the bubble to outside the bubble,” said Maysam, 29, tracing the trajectory of a shell aimed at some rebel stronghold in embattled suburbs. “We all live in a bubble here. No one really knows what’s going on outside of our little bubble.”

After 2 1/2 years of conflict, the Syrian capital is a deeply divided place. Central Damascus is heavily guarded and relatively secure, but its residents live with the unsettling reality of war raging all around them.

Many know little about the violence engulfing the sundry “no-go” zones that ring the capital, including the now-notorious Ghouta area, scene of the Aug. 21 chemical strikes that killed hundreds of people. The attack remains shrouded in mystery to residents here, even after the United Nations declared this week that toxic sarin gas was released via surface-to-surface missiles.

“I have no idea what happened,” said Bassel, 30, who was hanging out Monday evening with his close friend Maysam outside Jaheth Park. “But I don’t want 1,500 people to die from poison gas.”

The two friends and a third, Jawdat, 27, spoke to a visiting reporter about their lives in the capital during these difficult times. The men, all single, college-educated professionals, asked that their last names not be used for security reasons.

The trio, who say they are neutral in the war — though all are opposed to any Islamic fundamentalist takeover, preferring the government of President Bashar Assad — provided a window into how the conflict has affected Syria’s reeling middle class, battered by a collapsing economy and the deteriorating security scenario. The three say their only desire is that Syria return to its stable, secure state before the war.

“People are desperate,” said Bassel, a banker who acknowledges being a pessimist about his country’s future. “They are out smoking and drinking like nothing’s going on, but everyone’s worried.”

Added Jawdat: “People are just in denial. They can’t believe what has happened to Syria.”

Occasionally, incoming mortar rounds from rebel enclaves shatter the calm of places such as Abu Rummaneh, where the large Badr Mosque was hit a few months back and the top-floor flat of a smart apartment building remains a burned-out shell because of a mortar strike. But life goes on in this capital with a jarring semblance of normality, despite the many checkpoints and frequent artillery blasts. People make their way to work each day and the traffic backs up in rush hour. Yet the war is never far away.

“Now it’s a normal thing that you hear of someone you knew or a friend was killed or disappeared,” noted Bassel. “Maybe they were kidnapped or hit by a mortar.”

The emotional roller coaster in recent days amid the threat of military action by the United States, which accuses Assad’s forces of carrying out the chemical strikes, was especially nerve-racking. Some people left the country. Others stocked up on foodstuffs and scouted out potential shelters.

In Bassel’s case, he said he decided to catch up on his Americana Hollywood-style and watched the 2010 film “Green Zone,” starring Matt Damon, about the disastrous occupation of neighboring Iraq after the U.S.-engineered ouster of Saddam Hussein. A common fear here is that Syria is on course to be the next Iraq, site of seemingly endless sectarian slaughter and possible occupation by foreign troops.

“The movie didn’t make me feel any better,” Bassel said.

“If the Americans invade, will we all be treated like the prisoners in Abu Ghraib?” he asked, referring to the prison where Iraqis suffered abuse at the hands of U.S. jailers. “I wonder if what happened to our neighbor is what will happen to us?”

For many, the Syrian war has put off plans — marriage and careers, studies and trips. Lives are in limbo.

“You can’t plan anything,” said Jawdat, who works for the United Nations. “People don’t want to have children or families in these circumstances. We’re all suspended in time.”

Social workers, he said, advise people living in shelters not to have more children until the situation improves.

Millions have fled the country. But Syrians often encounter obstacles to securing jobs and legal residency abroad. All three men said they feared an even more difficult lifestyle outside Syria.

The increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict has created new rifts in a diverse society where it was long impolite to ask people about their religious beliefs. Now it is sometimes impossible not to know the creed of one’s colleagues and neighbor.

“I never knew my good friend Maysam was an Alawite — it never mattered before,” said Bassel, a member of the Sunni Muslim majority.

Alawites make up a minority sect whose most prominent member is Assad. The civil war pits mostly Sunni rebels against the president and his Alawite-dominated ruling circle.

The dynamic often means that Alawites face pressure to be ultra-loyalist, Maysam said.

“Sometimes you feel there is no middle ground,” Maysam explained, “you are pushed to show your support.”

Bassel said he sometimes senses mistrust from co-workers wondering whether he, as a Sunni, is a closet rebel sympathizer. He keeps his face closely shaven so as not to be confused with a bearded holy warrior.

Jawdat, also a Sunni, said he is sometimes mistaken for a Christian. He doesn’t bother to venture a correction, he said, because it can smooth tensions in some instances.

New rumors sweep the capital periodically about possible rebel advances, Western attacks, government strategic moves and other scenarios. It’s a jittery lifestyle.

“We just want things to be back the way they were before,” said Maysam. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that this will happen.”

Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.

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