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Amid Syria's civil war violence, a strange calm in the capital

Japhet Weeks, a 31-year-old American freelance video journalist, just returned from a weeklong trip to Damascus, where he found a suprising level of quiet and normalcy in a country wracked by civil war.

Japhet Weeks

A spice merchant in Damascus's old city.

Weeks wrote in an email to NBCNews.com on Wednesday:

While fighting continues in the suburbs -- and of course most recently bombs went off in the center today -- I was surprised by how regular Damascenes seem to be trying to get on with their lives. The markets are crowded. Vegetable stands are overflowing with fresh produce. People continue to get married with lavish celebrations. Children are out playing in the streets. 

Still, signs of the ongoing conflict are everywhere: military checkpoints are frequent, there is an increased number of displaced and mostly poor families, smoke rises from fire fights between government soldiers and rebels in the capital's suburbs.

Japhet Weeks

Images of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad and his father, Hafez, hang at an unmanned checkpoint in Damascus.

Weeks' images of daily life in Syria's capital are a stark contrast to many tragic images coming out of the northern parts of the country, where fighting is fiercest. In those areas, most journalists sneak into the country in order to work independently, though they often rely on rebel troops or aid groups to help guide or shelter them. Weeks used an official visa as part of a video crew centering their work in Damascus. That city is known to be a regime stronghold, so he was accompanied by a government representative who limited his ability to photograph places where fighting was happening, buildings that were deemed a security risk, as well as government soldiers.

Japhet Weeks

Syrian children in Damascus's Christian quarter.

Most of the citizens encountered by the crew were in favor of President Bashar Assad, though it was hard to discern how much of their commentary was influenced by the government guide's presence. Those residents described the battles as occurring between Syria's army and terrorists sent in by surrounding countries to destabilize Assad, a view touted by state-run television.

Japhet Weeks

Smoke rises from fighting between government soldiers and rebels on the outskirts of Damascus.

Despite working inside this "bubble," Weeks said his use of an iPhone camera (using the Hipstamatic app and the Ben Lowy filter with borders cropped out), and shooting subtly "from the hip," enabled him to capture more candid moments than he can typically film with his much larger video camera on a tripod.

Most days in the capital, Weeks saw large plumes of smoke rising from outlying areas. Despite his proximity to the fighting, Weeks was struck by the lack of a heavy military presence in the capital's center. But that may change as rebels strike closer to the heart of the regime this week and Assad's troops fight back.

Japhet Weeks

A man leans against a car in Damascus.

Weeks said it was hard to come to grips with the dichotomies he was witnessing. After seeing a man who was seemingly relaxed while leaning against a car, he was struck by the fact that in other parts of the country, hundreds of thousands of people have fled fighting. Another example happened the first night in his hotel, where he found an opulent wedding in progress. "I guess she has a right to have her perfect wedding day. It shouldn't really matter that her countrymen are slaughtering each other somewhere else. But at some point it should matter, you know? There should there be more austerity. It all just made me more confused leaving than I was arriving."

Japhet Weeks

A wedding taking place in the lobby of the photographer's hotel. The noisy celebration included traditional singing, women wearing shimmering, sequined miniskirts, and men in suits. For Damascus's wealthy life seems to be going on despite the country's civil war.

Japhet Weeks

A Syrian man walks while texting in Damascus.

Japhet Weeks

Damascus at sunset.

 

Manu Brabo / AP

A look back at the violence that has overtaken the country

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