Savouring a morning without bombs in Syria as truce takes hold

Aleppo (Syria) (AFP) –


For many people across battle-torn Syria, Saturday morning was unusual: for the first time in years, they could take a quiet neighbourhood stroll as their children played in the park.

Less than a day into a landmark ceasefire deal in parts of the country, residents say their usual routine has been thrown off without the usual sounds of artillery, rocket attacks, or helicopter-borne barrel bombs.

"We're totally lost today, our daily schedule has completely changed!" jokes Hasaan Abu Nuh, an activist from the town of Talbisseh in Homs province.

"Normally, the helicopter takes off at 8:00 AM and the party starts -- there were some violations today, but it's nothing," Abu Nuh tells AFP.

The guns fell silent at midnight on Friday across large parts of Syria, after the government and nearly 100 rebel groups agreed to a cessation of hostilities brokered by the United States and Russia.

For 11-year-old Ahmad, that meant something special: he could go to the park with his siblings.

He beams as he swings back and forth in the small playground near his home in the Sukari neighbourhood of bomb-battered Aleppo city.

"My father used to take us himself to go play in the park on Fridays only, when he could be sure there would be no shelling or clashes nearby," he says.

"But this morning, he allowed us to go by ourselves to the park near our home."

Osama Diri, who lives in the nearby Al-Maghayir district, says he was surprised how busy Aleppo's streets were when he woke up on Saturday.

"Normally, we wake up and there's very little movement in the morning until noon because of the airplanes," he says.

"Most of the residents would be at home. But now we don't hear the sounds of artillery or planes at all."

- Back from the frontline -

Tired of nearly five years of war, many residents had been deeply sceptical that a ceasefire could hold across the country, where more than 270,000 people have been killed in the past five years.

"We were waiting until the clock struck midnight so we could see what would happen," says Faez Sandeh, who lives in the Al-Kalasseh district with his wife and child.

"Thank God, the situation is good so far. There's been no shelling, no warplanes, and more people are walking in the streets."

Abu Sharif, one rebel stationed near Aleppo city, says the battle lines were so calm he was able to return home.

"I returned from my post in the Al-Breij area, which is a front line between us and the regime," he says.

"The situation was good and relaxing for us there, as there were no attacks or infiltration attempts by the regime forces."

Commanders in Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist group, say even they were abiding by the ceasefire.

"There were some clashes between us and regime forces after midnight, but they didn't last more than half an hour," says Abu Abdo al-Assir, an Ahrar leader in Aleppo.

"Now, we will be committed to the truce as long as the regime also commits to it."

His comments are particularly encouraging, as Ahrar al-Sham is one of the groups whose alliance with Al-Qaeda's local affiliate -- excluded from the deal -- had sparked worries the truce would not hold.

- Not a 'normal day' -

For Syrians near Damascus, whose morning coffee was often accompanied by the crash of artillery rounds, Saturday's quiet was a sign of hope.

Shadi Matar is an activist in the rebel bastion of Daraya, west of the capital.

Despite a pledge by the regime that it would continue operations there, Matar says the first hours of the truce were calm.

"On a normal day at this time, there are three or four planes flying around to drop barrel bombs," he says.

"Today, thank God, this isn't happening."

Inside the capital, hours of quiet were interrupted when several shells hit the central district of Abbasiyeen, without causing casualties.

Bassem Salhab, 55, insists that everyone should remain optimistic.

"For the first time we feel safe after everyone committed to the truce. Syrians generally want nothing more than a ceasefire," he says.

"People are sick and tired and this crisis has dragged on. The ceasefire is the only solution."

Medical student Ammar al-Rai says the relative calm nationwide has erased some of his pessimism about the future of Syria.

"All my friends are happy that it's quiet, even if it's temporary," says the 22-year-old.

"One of my friends in Germany sent me a message this morning to ask me jokingly, is the war over? When can I come back?

"Damascus is more beautiful without war."