By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Dec 4 (Reuters) - By day, the streets of Syria's capital are crowded with cars and with shoppers. It looks normal, but it isn't - by noon, people are planning how to get home before nightfall.
Roads suddenly blocked by the army cause traffic jams. Workers race to quit the office, hit the shops and get home by dark. Dark is when the kidnappers come out to seek new victims, and the clashes raging on the outskirts creep ever closer to the heart of Damascus.
For months, the people of Damascus have nervously watched their ancient city dragged deeper into Syria's bloody conflict.
Fighting has already laid waste to much of the northern city of Aleppo and burned parts of its vaulted Old City quarter to the ground. Whole swathes of central Homs have been reduced to rubble.
"I've seen what happens and have a sinking feeling about what comes next. We fear killing and bombing, we fear being forced to flee, or being looted by the army or the rebels," said Majed, 28, a hotel worker from central Damascus. "What would happen to our beautiful Old City? It is mental torture."
The 20-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for four decades, is now finally threatening the seat of power. Residents describe a foreboding and anxiety overtaking Damascus.
Rush hour now starts around 3 p.m., well before dusk.
"The rush starts sooner here than I've ever seen. It gets dark earlier in winter, and everyone wants to get home before dark," said one Damascus resident, who asked not to be named. "Even though so many people have left the city, Damascus traffic has never been so heavy."
Increasingly frequent car bombs and stray mortars hitting the capital are a warning to some that it is only a matter of time before Damascus becomes a battleground. Rebels are pushing to advance from their foothold on the outskirts of the city into the capital itself, and the army has responded with a fury of air and artillery bombardments on the suburbs.
Most people leave their homes or neighbourhoods only when absolutely necessary.
"I hear the explosions nearby and they are so loud now, and so constant, it makes my stomach ache," said Alia, who lives close to the contested southern districts of the capital.
"Last week a rocket landed on my street, I know the fighting is getting closer. The dread is causing me physical pain."
Residents say it is not only they who are anxious, but the army as well. Government and security buildings have been walled off with cement blocks. More checkpoints have been added to the city centre in the past week. Anyone crossing town is likely to be stopped at checkpoints at least three or four times.
Some who fled to Damascus from other hotspots in Syria now report being occasionally barred admission to some districts.
"I tried to go to Mezze district to see my sister's family and I was shocked that security wouldn't let me through. They said only outsiders with a rental contract here can come in right now," said Umm Mohammed, a woman from the Midan neighbourhood, an area sympathetic to the opposition.
Rebels launched a campaign from Midan in March but were crushed by the army within a few days. They fell back to the city's surrounding suburbs and countryside, where they have been preparing for a new campaign. They aim to capitalise on rebel advances around the country that have tilted the balance of power. The army now appears on the defensive.
A recent visitor to Damascus saw missile batteries positioned around the capital, and activists say more batteries are in place at Jabal Qasioun, the rocky mountain overlooking the city, to be fired into its streets should rebels enter.
Despite its growing militarisation, most of central Damascus feels firmly in army hands, residents say. Locals still go out to restaurants - but only before dark.
Even with such comforts, Damascus is becoming more and more isolated from its suburbs. Stores often close because staff or supplies are prevented by the army from getting into the city.
"Lots of workers from the suburbs can't go home at night or can't get back to work the next day. You go to a hairdresser: 'Sorry none of my employees could make it in.' You go to grocer: 'Sorry no milk, no yogurt, the milkman couldn't make it," said the resident.
"At a restaurant, the owner will tell you 'Don't bother looking at the menu, I'll tell you the five dishes we have.'"
BLAMING BOTH SIDES
These days, Syrians do not only worry about the rebels and the army; they fear each other.
Gunmen belonging to local vigilante groups aligned with the security forces now freely roam many neighbourhoods close to rebellious areas. Reports of kidnappings and murders come daily.
The tension is breeding general anxiety, with rumours of both army and rebel operations now a constant backdrop. Alia, a local housewife who spoke by Skype, said she and her family felt increasingly angry and confused over who to blame for the chaos.
"When I hear the planes bombing the neighbourhoods nearby, I think Assad, you bastard, why are you making us hate you?" she said. "But then I think, this is the rebels' fault. Things used to be good here, why did they ask for democracy just to destroy our country?"
Every day, more and more Syrians are quitting Damascus. Many who left temporarily are now calling relatives to send on their clothes and furniture, for a more permanent relocation.
But some cling to hope despite the odds.
Iman, a young woman from Jaramana, said she insists on walking her dog every morning despite the growing number of car bombs and mortar attacks in her neighbourhood.
"One day, we'll hear an explosion, we'll go and donate blood for the victims, and I think how afraid I am," she said, sighing. "But somehow I wake up the next day and I feel hope. I have to live my life."