DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria’s civil war has burst into central Damascus and its indiscriminate violence has put civilians in the firing line.
Thursday’s powerful bomb which killed more than 60 people in the capital’s Mazraa district may have targeted President Bashar al-Assad’s ruling Baath Party or the embassy of his ally Russia.
But many of the victims were ordinary Damascenes in the wrong place at the wrong time - including children packed into an elementary school directly behind the Baath Party offices.
“It’s in horrendous shape, it’s a war zone,” said the mother of a girl who attends Abdullah ibn al Zubair school, describing shattered windows and iron bars hanging from broken concrete.
Her daughter, wounded by shrapnel, may lose an eye and several of her schoolmates were killed, she said.
State media, which said 20 children died at the school, sought to whip up fury against rebels battling to overthrow Assad, repeatedly broadcasting gruesome footage of charred corpses, burning cars and angry condemnation of the attacks.
But on a day when activists say 90 people were killed in car bombings across Damascus, there was no need to manufacture rage.
Residents in the centre of the city, long isolated from a conflict which has killed 70,000 people in the last two years, fear that the violence which has devastated Homs, Aleppo and the outer districts of their own capital, is knocking at their door.
“OK fine, so the rebels want to make a point that they’ve arrived here in Damascus... How does that help their cause?” said a man in his 40s who is no supporter of Assad. “It’s us civilians who are getting hurt. We’re paying the price.”
An elderly woman vented her anger on both sides. “They’ve gone crazy, all of them...I don’t care what they want or who they think they’re fighting, they’re aiming their wrath at us. Damn them all,” she said.
No one has claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attacks but the al Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra says it carried out several devastating bombings in Damascus and Aleppo over the last year, as well as 17 smaller attacks around the capital in the first half of February alone.
At another Damascus school, Thursday’s attacks left one teacher struggling to calm a young class while she battled her own panic, unable to contact her college student son.
“The parents were calling frantically and the girls were going crazy and there was glass shattered all over the school from the explosion. I didn’t know where to begin.”
When she finally tracked down her son she discovered he had been wounded in one of the explosions, but was unable to take him to hospital because of clashes in her neighbourhood.
Shocked by the scene of corpses and body parts that he witnessed, he had been vomiting and was very shaken, she said.
Others, still trying to trace relatives caught up in Thursday’s blast, were bracing for the worst.
One family spent Thursday night hunting Damascus hospitals for a 35-year-old father of two and his 25-year-old brother-in-law, who were driving in Mazraa at the time of the explosion.
The burnt-out car has been found, and nearby the unconscious father of one of the men, who had been travelling in the back of the car with them, was also discovered. The two young men are still missing.
“The entire family are in shock,” a friend said. “I tried to speak to the mother on the phone, but her voice was inaudible - she couldn’t string a sentence together.”
“We all want change, but any time the rebels aim their guns at Damascus, it’s us civilians who get killed and maimed,” said one anti-Assad resident of the affluent Abu Rummaneh district of central Damascus, hit by mortar fire on Thursday for the first time, apparently launched by rebels.
Residents heard the whistle of shells followed almost immediately by an explosion. One man, walking past the neighbourhood’s Jahez Garden, said he saw one of the shells.
“It fell from the sky, just metres away from me, and the park was very crowded and everyone ran away,” he said.
But throughout this unprecedented attack on a district which is home to dozens of government officials and wealthy Syrians, there were no air raid sirens, no warnings to take shelter and no ambulances to be seen.
Security forces guarding checkpoints in the area tried to play it down.“Don’t worry, we’re the ones shooting at them,” said one security guard in civilian clothing, referring to the rebels.
“They’re not the ones shooting at us here,” he added, dismissing the shell that fell just across the street from his checkpoint. “That’s nothing, don’t worry about it at all.”
One Damascus family lost their home on Thursday, but chose to count their blessings that they all survived.
“All I remember is being pulled out from underneath bodies and rubble,” said a mother of four who was running errands close to her home in Mazraa when the car bomb exploded. “I‘m just grateful my kids and I are OK. No one was at home at the time.”
Editing by Dominic Evans and Stephen Powell