Photograph by Andrea Bruce
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Syrians in Damascus smoke a flavored tobacco water-pipe called sheesha and drink tea in an outside cafe under a flag of President Bashar al-Assad.
Photograph by Andrea Bruce

Witness: Andrea Bruce in Damascus

Documentary photographer Andrea Bruce covered Syria before its civil war as well as the rebellions and revolutions of the Middle East of the past several years.

“I never saw Iraq before the U.S. invasion,” she says, “And, after being based there on and off for seven years, I yearned to know what it was like before this war.” In the case of Syria, a country whose beauty Bruce witnessed before the war, her desire is to make sure others get to see Damascus in case it suffers the complete devastation seen in other Syrian cities.

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In the heart of the Old City boys idly chase the pigeons that flock to the square outside the Umayyad Mosque.

I had no idea what to expect when I first entered the regime side of Syria’s bloody civil war. Images from inside the city of Damascus have been scarce and journalists are rarely granted legal access.

The city appears strangely normal, at first. Children go to school. Men wear suits to work. Women dance at wedding parties. But what you also see are neighborhoods crowded with people displaced from areas outside the city who, for safety’s sake, are overstaying their welcome with relatives and friends.

In parts of Damascus families of 15 squeeze into tiny hotel rooms. Homeless children create playgrounds amidst ancient ruins. Now it is the constant shelling that is haunting in its normalcy. The throngs of tourists have disappeared from the old city. They have been replaced by the almost endless funeral processions.

A city I’ve always loved has become a tense bubble surrounded by encroaching chaos and violence. Followed by government-approved escorts, I was only allowed to leave my hotel at specific times; searching for the real Damascus under their wary and watchful eyes. Nevertheless, what I eventually found were people, living in the shadows of an over-crowded city, who largely didn’t take sides and whose loyalty was largely undefined. As in most of the world, people simply want to live their lives.

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In the old city of Damascus, a family houses several displaced families in their multi-tiered home. After eating dinner together, they spend their evenings smoking a sheesha water-pipe and drinking tea.
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Grief floods the faces of mourners at the funeral of a relative. According to his family, 29-year-old Elias Francis was driving to a job interview in Jordan when he was kidnapped. His body, bearing signs of torture, was later found and sent home.
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Displaced from Homs, Abu Abdullah and Lena Seriani Tamer Mizha now live in a small one-room apartment on Straight Street in the Old City of Damascus. Of the rebels who took over their home in Homs, they said, “Some are thieves, some are foreigners who are the worst and some are being paid.”
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Patriotism and support for the president’s regime are instilled at an early age. At a government-run elementary school, students salute, sing, and march in place as the national anthem plays over a loudspeaker. Many children now living in Damascus come from elsewhere and were displaced by the war.
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A woman sits alone at a cafe off Straight Street in the old city of Damascus. The cafe, the Al Nawfara Cafe, is located behind the Umayyad Mosque and is over 250 years old.

Andrea Bruce’s images of Damascus appear in the March issue of National Geographic magazine. Follow Bruce on her website.