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Hotspot report

“I don’t look up when shells fall from the sky, I just keep on going”

Syria, 18/07/2016 byCéline Neuenschwander

Swiss citizen Marie-Louise Haddad lives in the Syrian capital Damascus, which has been continually under fire since the outbreak of the war in Syria. Yet not even for a second has the 90-year-old considered leaving the country. She explains her reasons for this in an interview during her visit to Switzerland. Haddad also gives an unfiltered impression of the mindset of the Syrian population and her everyday life among traffickers, IS and bomb attacks.

Dear Ms Haddad, describe an ordinary day for you in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

I am an early riser so I am up and about very early each morning. If I’m lucky, the electricity is working. This isn’t always the case as many power lines have been destroyed. Firstly, I shower and freshen up and then I have breakfast while watching news from all over the world. During the morning I usually do household chores – because we live in the desert, you know, so it’s constantly dusty. I talk to a friend on the telephone each day. We do that for our own safety. When I’ve done the shopping I have a siesta and in the evenings I usually watch television.


That actually sounds very normal.

Yes, it is. In other cities such as Aleppo the situation is certainly much worse since there is no water there and no electricity at all. In Damascus life goes on; the streets are busy and the restaurants are full.


Are you ever scared?

What does scared mean? Naturally you fear attacks and bombings, but you don’t hide away. I’ve actually almost gotten used to it. I don’t look up when shells fall, I just keep on going. There are certainly people in Damascus who are more scared than I am. But as I see it, “if it’s going to happen, then it’ll happen one way or another”. Though that doesn’t mean I refuse to believe what’s going on. People around me have died in the attacks too, it is incredibly sad.


Have you ever considered leaving Damascus, or Syria in general?

No! I haven’t considered that even for a moment. Damascus has been by home for almost 60 years; all my friends live here and I have my apartment here. Damascus is still my home.


What is the sentiment among the residents of Damascus?

The people who still live in Syria do so with full awareness of the situation. What we can’t understand is the international intervention. Baschar Al-Assad is still the Syrian President. I don’t think it is right that other countries intervene in the conflict and Syrian citizens suffer as a result. Decisions are being made for a nation without seeking its opinion.


IS invokes Islam and wants to establish a caliphate under Sharia law. What role does religion play among Syrians?

There is no religious coercion in Syria. That is, religion plays no role at state level. I myself have never thought of converting to Islam. On the whole, it is not a big issue whether or not someone is religious. For example, I was sitting in a café recently and a young woman dressed in a tiny mini-skirt came in without causing anyone to bat an eyelid. Each person decides for herself whether to wear a headscarf or a mini-skirt.


Which consequences of war are evident in Damascus?

The clear absence of tourism is a big problem. Prices have risen rapidly because lots of food is smuggled illegally from Turkey. Electricity is in short supply and only works to a limited extent. On one hand this is because of the destroyed power lines and on the other, as a result of the small number of reservoirs. Contrary to what many people believe, there is still sufficient food available and the hospitals are still in operation, to my knowledge.


You addressed the issue concerning refugees. What can you tell us about these people and their expectations?

Most Syrian refugees leave under completely false expectations. They are told that in Europe and in Switzerland they will receive free food and a free car. The traffickers are behind lies such as these; they earn their money through the refugees and spread these untruths to boost their own business. The whole thing operates underground which is why it is so hard to catch the traffickers. Those of us who stay in Syria can’t understand those who leave.


The reports we hear about Syria are in the context of attacks, Islamic State or international intervention. What is your opinion of the image that is conveyed here?

This image is much too extreme. Life in Damascus goes on, restaurants are full and the streets are busy. People here haven’t lost any of their willingness to help. Take for example the friendly man who recently asked if he could give me a lift, as I can’t get around as easily on foot any more. The man held up all the other traffic to do so. Even as a single woman I never have any problems. When travelling, I often talk to people who have spent time in Syria and they tell me how well they regard the country. I am always overjoyed to hear such reactions.


Comment: Marie-Louise Haddad reported that upon her return to her home in Syria she found everything in order. There continued to be sufficient supplies, however the prices had risen yet higher. The month of Ramadan was said to be peaceful with just a few isolated sounds of conflict to be heard from around Damascus. It could be observed with great interest how the Islamic State is being forced further and further back and is losing fighters.

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