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How Syrians are coping with the daily adversity of war

The five-year civil war in Syria has torn the nation apart. Some parts, like the capital of Damascus, have survived relatively unscathed, while others, like Aleppo, have been decimated by bullets and bombs. But for Syrians everywhere, life must go on. Judy Woodruff talks to Declan Walsh of The New York Times for more on life inside government-held areas of Syria, still tightly controlled by Bashar al-Assad.

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    But, first, we return to the war in Syria.

    Most of the country's urban centers have been hammered by bombs, rockets, and bullets. But the heart of the capital, Damascus, has been left relatively unscathed. Orthodox Christians were even able to hold a public Palm Sunday celebration last week as the war continues on the city's outskirts.

    The New York Times' Declan Walsh recently returned from Damascus and Syria's largest city, Aleppo, the scene of heavy fighting in recent weeks.

    He joins me now from Cairo, Egypt.

    Declan Walsh, welcome to the program.

    So, you're one of the few Western reporters to be inside government-controlled Syria during this moment in the civil war. What is it like?

  • DECLAN WALSH, The New York Times:

    Well, it's a country that is under tight control from Bashar al-Assad in those parts of Syria that he still controls.

    And there are military checkposts everywhere. There is the image of the president, Bashar al-Assad, everywhere you turn, on every major public junction. And, you know, it's a very strange place in many ways, a place of great contrasts. You have — in Damascus, just on outskirts of the city, there are many neighborhoods that are controlled by the rebels.

    There is sporadic fighting that goes on all the time there. Yet, in the city center itself, there is some form, a semblance of normal life that's taking place. People are going about their business. There's traffic. At the weekends, people celebrate. I saw many weddings take place.

    So people seem to have determined, as much as they can, that they need on get on with their normal lives, even while pretty intense fighting in some cases is taking place in great proximity to them.


    How are they managing to hold up?


    You know, there is an international aid presence on the ground that is helping people out somewhat.

    The machinery of the state is still functioning to some degree. But people are extremely strained. In cities like Aleppo and Homs, which I visited, you have many people who are living rough. They're living in shelters. They're living in abandoned buildings. And they're living among the among the rubble of buildings that have been destroyed in airstrikes.

    So, already, there's a housing problem. And there's — people are also very vulnerable when it comes to things like food, electricity, water. But, again, it does depend where you are in the country.


    And who are people holding responsible for their plight, for where they are right now?


    Well, when you speak to Syrians, people are reticent to talk about politics in — particularly in government-held areas.

    Journalists who visit, like me, travel around the country in the company of an official from the Ministry of Information. So, it's quite difficult to get people to open up about, for instance, their attitude toward President Bashar al-Assad or indeed to talk about the rebels in other areas.

    But what people do talk about is, you know, how — they recognize how bad their own situation is. They can talk about that with great, great freedom. And they feel extremely frustrated. And they see — there's a great sense of helplessness among Syrians at this stage, after five years of conflict, about the war.

    They see it as something that's much bigger even than their own country. You know, this is a conflict that has so many foreign forces involved with it now. People will talk to you about America and Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. These are all the countries that are supporting different sides in this conflict.

    And they — when you speak to people, there's an overwhelming sense of helplessness, that, you know, there is no easy solution to this war in sight.


    What was so fascinating, Declan Walsh, about your reporting is that, I mean, ordinary people — you talked with a shopkeeper. You talked with so many others who just — they're still human beings. They still have, you know, normal human feelings.

    And you were even able to see a sense of humor that some of them have, still.


    Oh, absolutely, yes.

    I mean, you know, I suppose that's one of the best defense mechanisms for all of us in situations of adversity. And if you have the strength to try and turn something to a joke, even to a dark joke, it's one way of getting through the day.

    And for those people, Syrians, who are not directly caught up in the fighting on a day-to-day basis, they're still living in situations of adversity. And they're turning to all sorts of coping mechanisms to try and get through that. Humor is one thing.

    You know, when I was in Aleppo, one of the most striking things was that, in the city center, there was intermittent shelling. Bombs were landing here and there. You would be driving around in the streets, and you would hear an explosion 500 meters away. There would be another explosion an hour later and maybe a kilometer away.

    It made a tremendous racket. And for a newcomer like me, you would be absolutely alarmed, wondering, you know, what's going on or where is this coming from? But the people that you're speaking to locally wouldn't even flinch. They just went on like it wasn't happening.

    And when you asked them why, they said, look, you know, we have been living with this situation so long, this is the way we deal with it.


    Well, some remarkable reporting from inside Syria.

    Declan Walsh of The New York Times, we thank you.


    Thank you.

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