With Syria Ceasefire Holding, Damascus Is Quietly Reborn

After gains by regime troops, with Russian air support, calm and nightlife have returned to the capital. And locals are back to betting on Assad's survival.

Rolling back to life in Damascus
Rolling back to life in Damascus
Giordano Stabile

DAMASCUS â€" Looman Rustom is a 32-year old web designer in the Syrian capital. With an entrepreneurial spirit, he says he loves living life to the fullest, which he had always channeled through the spirit of his native city. "If your time has come, you’ll die even if you lock yourself at home everyday," he says. "Why not get out and live your life, even if there are bombs and suicide attacks?"

In Damascus, four years of siege and civil war seem to have rather suddenly disappeared. Since a cessation of hostilities between Bashar al-Assad’s government forces and opposition fighters took effect a month ago, the capital’s streets have filled back up with traffic on weekends, which begin Thursday nights here.

The once bustling nightlife area of Al Lawan had been the site of a battle with tanks and armored carriers in the autumn of 2012 â€" it’s now difficult again to find a table at the local restaurants. The Ottoman souq, or market, is packed during rush hour. In the upscale suburb of Al Muhajireen, home to Assad’s villa, the fountains are illuminated. In the mornings, young women wearing everything from black veils to plunging necklines skip class to meet at cafes in Al Nawfara.

Mortar rounds fired from the eastern area of Jobar, near the old city walls, were still hitting the central district of Bab Tuma as recently as a few weeks ago. One round even struck the dome of the Umayyad Mosque, which was built starting in the 8th century and is considered one of the world's most beautiful. But all signs of damage have since been covered over.

Greater Damascus was home to 5 million people before the war. The Assad-Putin axis this winter repelled the rebels’ siege of the city, and the rebel-controlled outskirts, running from Moadamiyeh to Ghouta, have been split into isolated pockets.

Now the ceasefire has consolidated the regime’s gains, dividing the rebels in groups covered by the agreement and those not, such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. For the first time in four years Syrians can drive safely on the Damascus-Homs highway, even at night, as long as they take a long detour around the suburb of Douma where fighting continues.

Winning bet

The Assad regime is looking to recapture the support of the Sunni commercial class, which wants to get back to business. Mouafad, 76, is the owner of Bakdash, the Arab world’s most famous ice cream shop, located in the Damascus souq. "We resisted alone against 80 countries, and Europe only woke up when terrorism arrived," he says. "The ceasefire is our victory, and now Syria will come back to life because its own people are unique, they can create wealth out of thin air."

Elections will be held in 10 weeks, a government strategy to seal the new understanding between the Sunni bourgeoisie and the Alawite-dominated regime. The government-recognized political “opposition” only holds five seats in the 250-seat parliament, but there are more independent candidates running this year. They plaster billboards and walls with their campaign posters, always making sure that they are smaller than the giant portraits of Bashar al-Assad. The two internal opposition parties expected to make minor gains are the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and the Nasserist Arab Socialist Union, led by Hassan Abdul Azim.

The Christian community, a minority in the Sunni-dominated country, returned some time ago to backing Assad. In the neighborhood of Bab Al Sharqi, along the roads once traveled by St. Paul, Christians of all varieties â€" Maronite, Armenian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox â€" live side-by-side.

The Christians of Damascus are angry with Europe, and feel betrayed by the Old Continent’s leaders. "First you supported the Islamist rebels, now you accept more Muslim refugees than Christian ones," says monk Mousa Houri, counselor to Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius. "We Christians will never leave Damascus. This is our home, we have nowhere else to go."

Dozens of churches have been destroyed across Syria by Islamist groups, pushing Christian communities closer together in safe areas. The Syriac Orthodox greatly admire Pope Francis, and appreciate the apostolic nuncio’s decision not to leave Damascus, even when rockets fell on the city center.

The young soldiers manning the checkpoint that controls access to the main street of Al Lawan seem relaxed. Some of them haven’t been home in three years, and hope that the ceasefire could change that. Restaurant valets keep warm during the cold nights by turning on electric stoves. Prices in Damascus are a third cheaper than in Beirut, but so are the wages â€" the average pay is only $150 a month. Drafted soldiers earn just $30.

They can only afford to eat bread and beans, like poor farmers. But enthusiasm is slowly growing following a string of recent victories, including the recapture of ISIS-held Al Qaryatayn, a town in the mountains between Homs and Palmyra. Islamic State fighters had conquered the town in August 2015 and taken 230 hostages, but were forced to flee after the liberation of Palmyra left them isolated. As the group's black flags recede further from Damascus, Assad looks to be winning his gamble for survival.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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