DAMASCUS— A new exodus is flowing from Syria as fighting edges closer to the heart of Damascus — those who swore they would never flee are selling their belongings to escape a battle now raging on their doorsteps.
Many Syrians in the capital had long asserted that the uprising-turned-civil war would not breach the city center. Others insisted they would stay, no matter the consequences.
But fear has begun to grip even the most resolute residents.
For many the tipping point was a hail of mortar bombs and rockets that shook Damascus for several days last month as rebels and troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad brought tit-for-tat bombardments to the core of the capital.
March was the most violent month in Syria's two-year-old civil war, with an estimated 6,000 people killed after increased fighting around Damascus and the southern province of Deraa.
In response, families once determined to remain in the city are packing up and leaving. Others are scrambling to pull together limited resources and, with a heavy heart, are planning an indefinite absence from the only home they have known.
"My wife barely likes to go away on holiday," said Ibrahim, who owns a textile business that his family had run for generations in this ancient city. "And now, who would have thought we'd be packing to leave? God only knows when we'll be back."
More than 1 million Syrian refugees have already left, with thousands more fleeing daily. Aid groups operating in Syria say around 4 million others have been displaced inside the country, often having to move from place to place as violence spreads.
Ibrahim and his wife Lana, who asked for their family names to be withheld for security reasons, live in the middle class neighborhood of Rukn al-Din, where they raised four children.
Mortar and rocket fire has convulsed their once-tranquil district in the past few weeks. One huge blast killed several passersby outside their home and broke some of their windows.
"Things are only getting worse. Sometimes I hear the regime shells fly by our building on their way to the rebels. Then I sit and pray, thinking the retaliatory shelling is going to kill us," Lana said. "We have our 10-year-old daughter with us, and she's always afraid now. I can't take this anymore."
Strapped for cash, the couple sold their two cars to pay for air fares and perhaps a few months' rent in a new home in Egypt.
"Maybe in a few months things will have calmed down here, and we can return. God knows," said Lana.
She is taking her jewelry with her, which she estimates to be worth about $3,000 or $4,000, "in case we need extra cash."
Lana and Ibrahim are luckier than some.
Lives on hold
Another couple, Mayada and Yasser, are looking to flee again, months after they left their home in the suburb of Qudseya outside Damascus — now a ghost town and battleground.
Their move, to stay with parents in central Damascus, is typical of thousands of Syrians who fled fighting on the outskirts, only for the violence to edge ever closer.
Penury also looms for people like Yasser, a nutritionist and personal trainer, who has earned little in the past two years. Twice he was just meters from a mortar bomb explosion, he says.
"Both my wife and I care for our elderly parents, and we're very close to our siblings," said Yasser. "When we got married, we promised each other we'd never move abroad for these reasons. But now, things are so bad our parents are begging us to leave."
Mayada chimed in: "Our lives have been on hold for two years now. How long can we put up with this?"
They hope to fly to Jordan or the United Arab Emirates, depending on where they can get visas. Mayada plans to sell her jewelry to help keep them afloat for a few weeks.
Even the affluent have trouble now. Wafa and her husband Rasheed, a U.S.-trained physician, fled on Thursday from the posh neighborhood of Abu Rumaneh where they both grew up.
"We thought we just had to wait this war out," said Wafa, the young mother of two small boys. "Where would we go? Our home is here. Our parents are here. Our childhood memories. The clinic. We never thought we'd live anywhere else."
But shelling has struck Abu Rumaneh at least four times in the past month. One mortar round exploded in the park their home overlooks, another smashed into the dome of the local mosque down the block.
"It's been so frightening for us and our babies," said Wafa, sitting in her newly rented modest home in a Beirut suburb.
Her voice echoes in the sparsely furnished apartment. "Even living in a shack is better than the fright we've endured."