Damascus opera suffers under mortar strikes

Damascus opera suffers under mortar strikes

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Just as Leen Arbid entered the front gate of the Damascus Opera House, a potent symbol of the Assad family's decades-long authoritarian rule over Syria, she heard a deafening bang. And then, everything went black.

The drama student was going to her classes that bright Sunday morning when a mortar shell fired from rebel positions on the outskirts of the Syrian capital struck the pavement inside the complex yard, next to an entrance door used by performers.

"Suddenly at 8:15, a mortar hit five meters (yards) from me," the petite 24-year-old with chestnut eyes said. "I was injured and fell to the ground unconscious, bleeding. I didn't feel any pain."

Flying shrapnel from the shell pierced into her right leg. Five other of her classmates were also wounded, and two others died in the explosion, which shattered windows on the building and broke glass on a board that advertised a Chopin piano concert that was to be held that day, April 6.

Mortar attacks have become daily occurrence in the Syrian capital of some two million, often killing more people than this attack. But the strike last month against the opera house resonated much more loudly through the Damascus community. It was a direct hit against the Assad family's cherished creation.

Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades with an iron fist, was only a few years in power in 1970 when he laid the foundation stone of the Assad House for Culture and Arts.

Hard economic times and the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war stalled construction. The opera was scheduled to open in 1999, but was again delayed by an electrical fire that gutted the main hall.

After Hafez Assad's death in 2000, it fell on his son and successor, Bashar, to finish the job. In 2004, he opened the opera house with his British-born wife, Asma, amid great fanfare and fireworks.

The sprawling complex includes a large opera hall, two smaller theaters and acting, singing and ballet schools, offering classical concerts and works by Arab playwrights. Built with a mix of Western and Arab architecture and decorated with paintings and sculptures by Syrian artists, it expresses the Assad family's vision of Damascus as the Arab capital of culture and politics, with them at the helm as visionaries and reformers.

The efforts paid off. Damascus was chosen the cultural capital of the Arab world in 2008, hosting a year-long series of theatrical and musical events with much celebration and pride.

But the outbreak of the uprising in 2011 — now a civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people and left much of the country in ruins — changed all that.

Amid the conflict, international performers stopped coming to the opera house. Many musicians and actors joined some 2.5 million Syrians who fled the country. Others were blocked by fighting from traveling to Damascus to perform. Several died in the fighting.

The intensity of rebel mortar attacks against the capital appears to be increasing since Assad set the presidential elections for June. The opposition, which will not take part in the vote, says the election is set to cement Assad in power and dash any hope of quick reconciliation and peace.

The attacks are indiscriminate, hitting residential areas, including schools, businesses and hospitals alike. Last week, several mortar shells slammed into a school in central Damascus, killing more than 14 people, including several children, and wounding around 85 others in one of the deadliest mortar attacks on the capital since the conflict began in March 2011.

The death toll and damage is far lower than that in other, opposition held urban centers, which have been battered by Syrian army warplanes, heavy artillery and street fighting. But the mortar shells have disrupted life in the city. Few people now dare venture out late at night.

Still, concerts and plays have continued, although more sporadically and with a skeleton staff.

"It is not easy to play when you hear every day that people are dying, children losing their lives and bombs hitting the opera house," symphony orchestra conductor Missak Baghboudarian said. "But music is life ... it brings people together."

The opera complex, situated on the downtown Umayyad Square next to the Defense Ministry, the headquarters of the dreaded secret police and the state-run TV station, was hit several times by rebel mortars and car bombs during the war. The strikes were apparently aimed against Assad's centers of power, rather than the opera itself.

"This makes people afraid to come," opera director Lama Sallouh said. "But fortunately, it does not last too long. Maybe they stop coming for a week or two, but then they come back. It makes us feel alive, and reminds us of our country before the crisis."

Speaking at a large, ornately decorated opera hall that seats over 1,000 people in red-velvet-covered chairs, she said that Assad and his wife are now much less frequent visitors.

"Before the crisis, they used to come twice, three times a month," she said. "Sometimes it was arranged, sometimes it was all of a sudden."

Assad did make one triumphant return to the opera hall in January last year, when he delivered an hour-long policy keynote speech that became known as the Damascus Opera House formula. He indicated he will not step down as demanded by the opposition as the main precondition for peace talks, rejected foreign interference and announced elections will be held this year.

"We don't want someone to come to Syria and tell us what to do in a political process," he told a cheering crowd. "A country that is thousands of years old knows how to manage its affairs."

During a visit to the complex this week, the thumping sound of heavy government artillery pounding opposition-held suburbs of Damascus mixed with the strong voice of a male tenor practicing an aria from Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata.

"Love is a heartbeat throughout the universe, mysterious, altering. The torment and delight of my heart," he sang.