(The identities of the reporters have been withheld for their security)
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - In the once bustling shopping district of Hamra Street in the heart of Damascus, three men - all made homeless by fighting which raged in the city for two weeks - sit outside their empty shops on a deserted pavement.
Residents of the eastern and southern suburbs of the Syrian capital, which have been hardest hit by President Bashar al-Assad’s fierce counter-offensive against rebel forces, they have sought shelter with family in central Damascus.
“Can you believe that all three of us here have fled our homes? All of us are from destroyed homes. Living with relatives in the centre of town,” said Ahmed, a shop owner from Douma, an opposition suburb to the east of the capital.
They have joined many thousands who have retreated inwards to relative safety, leaving the city shrunken and surrounded by a still smoldering war zone.
But even central Damascus has been shattered by the violence. Shops open only between 9 am and 3 pm, food prices have soared and no one dares walk outside after dusk, even in the holy month of Ramadan when streets are normally packed late into the night with people celebrating after a day of fasting.
“There are no customers and I sent my employees home. I cannot afford to pay them. I cannot afford to pay the installments on my home. I am bankrupt,” said Ahmed who, like others interviewed for this article, declined to give his full name.
The men, from the southern suburb of Sayida Zeinab and Hajar al-Aswad - hit by rockets and heavy machine gun fire from helicopter gunships - said they initially had little sympathy with the uprising against 42 years of Assad family rule, inspired by revolts across the Arab world last year.
“To begin with I was with the regime, for sure,” said Ahmed. “But now, no, the regime must go. Take what they want with them, but they must go.”
Mohammad blamed the 46-year-old president, who has vowed to defeat what he says is foreign-backed terrorist violence, for the increasing despair in Damascus.
“Can anyone stand by him now? I don’t believe it. We’re all refugees. We have no houses, no money. Our bosses don’t pay us. This must end.”
Restaurants in the centre of Damascus, which would normally be packed at dusk as Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast, say they have been empty for days.
“From the first day of Ramadan till today, not one customer has stepped into this restaurant,” said Mohammad, who works at a restaurant in the 29th of May street, a few blocks north of the old city. “Five people came today but because I wasn’t expecting anyone I had to turn them away.”
Only the snack restaurants selling fatayer - meat or vegetables wrapped in pastry - are doing good business, feeding displaced people in schools and gardens.
A school in Barzeh, in northern Damascus, has taken in 1,500 displaced people from Douma, Qaboun and Harasta, rebel strongholds to the east which have been pounded by Assad’s army.
“All sorts of help is brought, especially food in Ramadan,” said one activist at the school.
In many districts the pervasive stench of rotten garbage, left uncollected throughout last week’s scorching heat and heavy fighting, has finally dissipated following a cleanup by both residents and authorities.
In the northern neighborhood of Jisr al-Abyad, people desperate for business have resorted to selling goods on the pavements, something which in pre-crisis days would have been immediately stopped by city authorities.
Checkpoints and roadblocks hamper movement for those who want to travel.
“I can’t get to work or deliver my goods, not that there is much business anyway ... I haven’t brought a penny home in three months,” said Bassam, a honey producer who fled his home in Douma with his family to stay with relatives in central Abu Roumaneh.
”No one is buying, no one is selling. The Syrian pound is weak ... And prices of everything have sky rocketed,’ said Marwan, an agricultural products supplier.
Fears over a prolonged blockade and food and petrol shortages saw a spike in the price of foodstuffs of up to 150 percent last week with three-hour queues forming at gas stations until a convoy of tankers on Sunday brought more petrol.
In Midan, the first district of the capital to be retaken by Assad’s forces eight days ago, the wreckage of burned-out cars, destroyed buildings and bullet-ridden walls and windows bore witness to indiscriminate destruction.
“I came back on Monday and found my home turned inside out. luckily I had taken my gold and money with me but the army took my son’s clothes, my perfume bottles and other items,” said Huda, a resident of Damascus’ traditional heartland.
“Please tell the world to cut China and Russia off and to get us a no-fly zone,” another Midan resident said, reflecting the anger of Assad’s opponents towards Beijing and Moscow for blocking Western-backed United Nations resolutions over Syria.
“I swear that if it wasn’t for my family I would be out there fighting with the Free Syrian Army.”
Not everyone is rooting for the rebels. Aside from staunchly pro-Assad loyalists, there is an increasing number of people who oppose the president but are wary of the FSA.
“Neither side is a very attractive option for Syria ... The regime is a beast but the FSA, the Salafists and the international agenda are going to destroy the country,” said Housam, a local resident.
That despair is echoed in the Shaalan vegetable market, where shoppers and shopkeepers alike see little chance of escaping the spiral of violence and economic collapse.
One woman shopping at the market said she had only started leaving her home in the last two days, in daylight.
“Life has become one big problem. Syrians are killing Syrians. Everyone in my street in Mezze fled,” said another woman driving to Shaalan. “The country is being destroyed.”
Like his customers, a shopkeeper bemoaned the high prices.
“I‘m just like them - I can only get food and vegetables and fruit if I pay double. And it only gets here with difficulty. None of us can bear it,” he said.
“The solution is in the hands of the regime. Either he goes, or he stays on killing people,” said the shopkeeper, choosing out of contempt or residual fear not to speak Assad’s name out loud. “As long as he stays, there is no solution.”
Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Giles Elgood