Life in Damascus: Shelling ... and smoothies

Story highlights

  • Frederik Pleitgen has been to Syria several times in recent years
  • He says that while the front lines have barely moved in some places, the mood has changed
  • People in the capital are trying to carry on with life, but few people believe the war will end any time soon

What do you want to know about Syria? Frederik Pleitgen has just returned from Damascus and will answer your questions on Facebook at 11 a.m. New York / 4 p.m. London on Thursday.

Damascus, Syria (CNN)It's the descent down the final mountain path leading into Damascus that will often set the tone of your visits to Syria.

The last time we drove down this road, which leads from Lebanon to the Syrian capital, was 18 months ago. Plumes of smoke, caused by shelling or airstrikes, streamed upward from rebel-controlled areas to the horizon.
    This time there was none of that; government forces transported tanks on the back of trucks, and portraits of President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez peered down at us from a hill above the highway. By and large the city seemed almost calm.
    But that, of course, is not the reality in Damascus, or at least not the only reality. On the one hand, there are areas which appear to be almost normal. But there is also massive destruction in many other parts of the capital, where the fighting is as intense now as it was several years ago.
    Abu Abdou's fruit bar
    The streets in central Damascus are still packed with people shopping, walking around or sitting on the grass in local parks. One of the locals' favorite spots is Abu Abdou's fruit bar. People order cold drinks and fruit salads and eat them in the shade during the hot afternoon hours.
    But one thing that has changed is the mood. Much of the optimism that Syria's civil war might come to a quick end vanished long ago.
    "I believe that this war will go on for a very long time," one local man says. A young woman tells us she's concerned about recent ISIS advances into government-controlled territory and says she's afraid they'll come to the capital as well.
    "I would never say anything is impossible these days," she says. "We just cannot say anymore."
    As customers at Abu Abdou's enjoy their smoothies, a couple of miles down the road the war is in full swing. Thousands are starving in Yarmouk district, a place that embodies the tragedy of Syria's conflict like almost nowhere else.
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    Built as a refugee camp in 1957 for Palestinians fleeing the Arab-Israeli conflict, Yarmouk was home to more than a million people before the war started. Now it is mostly empty, a bombed-out wasteland of a neighborhood destroyed by years of fierce fighting between regime forces and Palestinian rebels.
    The people still living there are enduring brutal conditions. There has been an outbreak of typhoid in the camp, according to the U.N., which says it has largely been unable to supply those caught in the crossfire with even the most basic of supplies.
    The last time we visited Yarmouk was nearly two years ago. Between now and then, the military has advanced about two blocks. But the destruction caused by the battles is overwhelming -- houses aren't just shot and burned, they're totally flattened as all sides use heavy weapons to wage war, street by street, between high rise buildings.
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    If the frontlines have barely moved in Damascus in the past year and a half, other crises have become more pronounced. Getting fuel is often a problem in the capital, and on some days motorists have to wait hours just to fill up their cars.
    "It is not just the problem that we have to wait so long, the fuel is also much more expensive than it was before," one driver tells us after he finally makes it to the front of the line.
    Ali Mustapha, the owner of the gas station and a staunch supporter of the President, blames rebel forces for the fuel shortages.
    "Sometimes there will be attacks on refineries and then we will not get fuel for several days. They also sometimes hit tanker trucks on the roads," he says, sitting in his office as the cars pile up outside.
    "There are days were we have to close the gas station altogether," he explains, before striking up a more optimistic tone. "But by and large, we are getting by. In the end, I am sure we will win and things will return to the way they used to be."
    Between the lines of cars slowly creeping toward the pumps lies another of Syria's problems -- one that is worsening by the day.
    Two young boys in dirty shirts weave in and out of the gridlock, trying to sell tissue boxes to passersby. Alla is nine, his brother Ali just five. They were displaced from their home in Idlib by the war. Now they spend all day in the sizzling summer heat trying to make a few Syrian pounds to help feed their family.
    Ali and Alla's home in Idlib was destroyed in the fighting
    "We had to come to Damascus when our home was destroyed," Alla says as he wraps his arm around his little brother's shoulder. Their smiles belie the sadness of their story, one that is all too familiar across this war-torn country.
    More than 4 million people have fled Syria since the uprising began in 2011. But there's an even bigger problem inside its borders. The U.N. says some 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced, and it's more difficult to help them here than it is in Jordan or Turkey. At least in those countries, aid convoys don't have to cross enemy lines and deliver aid to live battlefields.
    In the week we spent in Damascus, government airstrikes killed dozens of people, and wounded hundreds more. Aid groups say most of them were civilians.
    It is gut-wrenching to witness firsthand the killing and the exodus that is tearing away at the social fabric of such a proud, diverse and culture society. And as a political solution to stop the fighting remains elusive, it's even more devastating to think that the war won't be ending anytime soon.
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