As the Syrian conflict escalates, with what appear to be chemical weapons killing unsuspecting families in their sleep and talk in Western capitals of armed intervention, M. no longer knows what to stockpile.
Like other Damascenes, M. (who requested anonymity for security reasons) has greeted each new phase of the conflagration with requisite preparation: First, she bought flashlights with rechargeable batteries once the daily electricity cuts began, keeping her home in darkness for hours; then, extra heating fuel and cooking gas which quickly disappeared in shortages as winter drew nearer and colder; rice, lentils, Mazola, and other non-perishable foodstuffs so her family wouldn’t go hungry as grocery shelves emptied; clean water for when there wouldn’t be any; and, as the lira plummeted, dollars from the black market because American currency might be the only way out, should her family need to leave suddenly.
When falling rockets and explosions became more frequent and ubiquitous on the streets, she ventured out only rarely, and carefully.
Then, five days ago, evidence began to emerge of a possible chemical weapons barrage in areas of the Ghouta, a rebel-held agricultural area east of Damascus, in which more than 300 people were reportedly killed.
With death now carried by the wind and no one providing or selling any gas masks, M. does not know what precautions to take. She even leaves the windows open.
"It doesn’t matter anymore," she says, acknowledging that the conflict is closer than it has been before - as close as the air they breathe - in a city that has so far been shielded from the worst of the violence and deprivation that has ravaged much of Syria.
Talk of war
International anxiety over the potential use of chemical weapons in a conflict that, according to UN figures, has already claimed more than 100,000 lives, has prompted renewed debate over military intervention. U.N. inspectors are visiting the sites of last week’s alleged attacks as Western leaders prepare options for the harsh response they vow will follow any confirmation that the Assad regime has used such weapons on its own population.
But in Damascus, others like M., are focusing less on debating who carried out the attack - the regime? renegade elements within the regime? terrorists? - and more on adapting to the new reality directly confronting them this week.
Where truth is elusive and where ordinary Syrians have no influence over what will happen next on the global chess-board that their country has become, many prefer to focus their energies on things they can control, and to plan for what can be anticipated.
"It's war," says a travel agent, who used to organize European tourists' excursions to Syria’s archaeological wonders. "We don’t know what will happen or when. It is not in our hands to decide."
Instead, he is following the warnings that have been widely circulating by Facebook, SMS, and word of mouth advising people to clean produce thoroughly, abstain from dairy products coming from the chemically infested areas, and to wash hands frequently. One such Facebook message ended with "May God keep you from harm."
A pharmacist who wishes not to be identified is not expecting that it will be UN inspectors to save Syria. "Silly inspectors," she says. "Do you believe in their integrity? You think they will be able to do their job?" She dismissed the investigation of the alleged chemical attack as "just to waste time".
There’s more certainty in the voices of the Syrian opposition leadership set up abroad by backers of the rebellion. "We call for international intervention by all means to curb the Assad regime after Western confirmation of the use of chemical weapons," Syrian National Council President Ahmad Jarba told an Istanbul press conference on Saturday.
But on the question of Western intervention, Damascenes reached by Al Jazeera over the weekend remained wary -- even those who blame the conflict squarely on the Assad regime.
The travel agent says all he wants is peace, and soon. But he says he doesn’t know how that can happen. "Civilians are confused," he says, leaders "talk too much."
M. - a long time disparager of the regime - says not to ask her these questions, they are irrelevant.
The pharmacist is unequivocal. She believes it's a well-worn script being prepared for Syria.
"We are witnessing a new Afghanistan and a new Iraq," she says.