"Snowball truce" brings brief joy to war-weary Damascus

BEIRUT Thu Jan 10, 2013 8:57am EST

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - For a few fleeting hours, residents of Syria's capital dropped their guns for snowballs and traded hatred for laughter.

A rare snowfall that covered Damascus in white on Wednesday sparked an overnight outbreak of playfulness among Syrians, who momentarily ignored their bloody civil war and forgot their affiliations as dissidents, loyalists and even soldiers.

"Last night, for the first time in months, I heard laughter instead of shelling. Even the security forces put down their guns and helped us make a snowman," Iman, a resident of the central Shaalan neighborhood, said by Skype on Thursday.

"It was the first time in a long time that I remember talking to our neighbors who are pro-opposition."

Gloom has gripped Damascus for months, as the 21-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad edges closer to the capital, with gunfire and shelling echoing from its outskirts.

A winter storm ravaged Syria and its neighbors this week, flooding and freezing towns across the region. But residents in the capital said the snow briefly swept away their misery.

"We felt a smile that has been missing from our faces for almost two years and we were all just Syrians," said Amin, a resident of central Damascus, speaking on the internet.

"For a few hours our hearts were as pure as the snow."

The uprising against four decades of Assad family rule began as peaceful protests but has become an armed and increasingly sectarian conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

These days, Damascus streets mostly empty after dark. Residents stay at home for fear of violence or kidnapping. Jittery soldiers guard checkpoints and public buildings from clashes and explosions that sometimes penetrate the heart of the city.

But on Wednesday night, residents in several neighborhoods said they had stayed out until the early hours to enjoy the snow, teased by soldiers who usually stand in grim silence.

"We were out until 2 a.m. just playing ... Last night there were woman and children and men outside and no one was afraid," said a resident speaking by internet from Midan, a largely pro-opposition neighborhood in Damascus. With the daily reality of war returning however, he refused to give his name.

"Last night the soldiers threw snowballs at us from their checkpoints. Everyone started coming out and the soldiers would joke: 'Oh no, is this a protest?'" he said.

For most, the snow truce offered little hope of better days, but some said it showed Syrians could still coexist in future.

"I don't think there is any hope we can stop this war - this morning, I could hear the shelling again," said Iman.

"But yesterday, everyone loved each other. And I feel sure that one day we can live together again." (Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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