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In Damascus, Bracing For The Worst

Editor's Note: Throughout the Syrian uprising, the government has allowed few foreign journalists and other outsiders into the country, and there has been limited information about many parts of the country. In this essay, a Syrian citizen describes life in the capital Damascus. For security reasons, NPR is not identifying the author.

The people of Damascus seem to be bracing for the worst, fearing that a revolt now 20 months old is building to a ferocious fight for control of the capital.

For many months, Damascus was spared the worst of the fighting. But amid the increasing battles in and around the city, almost every Damascene household seems to be doubling or tripling up with extended family.

Young couples and their small children are sharing an apartment with their parents and an ailing aunt. Widowed women host their adult siblings and in-laws, along with nieces and nephews.

One young couple, Fatma and Malek, split their time between her parents and his, both situated in relatively calm central Damascus.

The couple lost their home last summer during heavy shelling by government forces directed at rebels in Zamalka, a suburb outside Damascus.

"It's our last refuge," says Fatma. She adds that her parents are also hosting extended family who recently fled the embattled city of Aleppo, the country's largest city, in the north.

"So when the battle comes here, we really don't know to where we can escape," she says. "Only God can help us then."

The rebels say they are preparing for a major assault on Damascus. And events last week contributed to the sense that an attack was coming — there was heavy fighting outside the city, which closed the Damascus airport temporarily.

Also, the Internet and mobile phone circuits were cut off Thursday and Friday, apparently as an intentional act by the government.

The army's missile batteries have recently been placed in spots where they are visible in the hills just outside the city boundaries.

Activists also say the regime has missiles aimed at Damascus proper, sitting in the hills of Mount Qasioun, which surround the capital.

The activists also say there are government missile batteries within the city as well, including at least one inside the medieval citadel in Damascus' historic quarters.

None of this bodes well for the roughly 1.7 million residents of the capital.

Just last week, a mortar shell landed during early evening rush hour in the middle of Abou Rumaneh, a central neighborhood just a 10-minute walk from the presidential residence and many embassies.

Many refer to this area as "ground zero" for its proximity to the military headquarters, Syrian TV headquarters and a major intelligence branch. At least one person was killed, and several were injured.

It was one of the first such breaches in the city, and no one was able to say for certain where the shell had come from, or who had fired it.

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