By Mariam Karouny
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - When darkness falls, streets in Damascus empty as people brace for explosions and crackles of gunfire - once distant threats which now bring fear and sleepless nights to the heart of the Syrian capital.
For months the unrest that erupted across Syria last year, when opponents of President Bashar al-Assad demonstrated for greater rights, was held at bay from the government stronghold of Damascus, even as street protests turned to armed struggle.
Now Damascenes feel the unrest is encroaching on their homes and the sense of unease is tangible.
Frequent explosions shake the city, ranging from a bombing which killed at least nine people in the Midan district 10 days ago to nightly blasts, many of which remain unexplained.
Activists blame some of the detonations on Assad's security forces, saying they are deliberately heightening the sense of insecurity as part of efforts to portray a popular uprising as a violent campaign by foreign-backed militants.
They say soldiers and police have carried out waves of arrests in Damascus during attempts to suppress months of peaceful protests, fired on marchers and shelled the eastern suburbs of the capital for weeks to dislodge rebel fighters.
In the city itself, blast walls now surround several government buildings and some streets are blocked on Fridays, when protesters pour out of mosques here and across the country to demand an end to more than four decades of Assad family rule.
"Security-wise maybe we are still okay here in Damascus, but for how long? We feel it is getting closer and closer," said Mervat, a 33-year-old woman whose husband is a clothes merchant in central Damascus.
"All this shooting at night terrifies the children. Three days ago the clashes were in my street," she said.
Residents also speak of assassinations of military officers, teachers and others seen as closely linked to the authorities.
In neighborhoods extending from central Damascus to the eastern suburbs and towns that lie a few miles outside the capital, residents say gunfire keeps them awake most nights.
"GUNMEN AT MY DOOR"
"It is getting close. My house is very close to the town of Jobar. I feel that one night I will wake up to find the gunmen at my door," said a 46-year-old shopkeeper in Damascus, adding it was not clear who was behind the shooting.
"I don't care who is to blame, right now this does not matter. Our lives have been ruined. We want an end to this. We want to live in peace," he said, declining to give his name.
Assad's opponents say the security forces are responsible for most of the violence, including some of the blasts.
"All these explosions that we hear at night are percussion bombs. The regime wants people to be scared. It rules through fear," said Omar, an anti-government activist in Damascus.
A taxi driver described how he was stuck for hours one night by fighting between gunmen and government troops as he took a passenger from Damascus to the nearby town of Harasta.
"I called my wife and my mother and asked for their forgiveness because I was certain that those were my last moments," he said.
"When I finally managed to leave the road, I parked on the side, splashed water on my face and thought: 'What the hell was that? Am I still in Syria'?"
Other residents say car thefts are on the rise in a city where crime levels were negligible a year ago, saying they believed both government supporters and rebels were stealing civilian vehicles to use in attacks on each other.
A Damascus taxi driver said armed men stopped his brother and took his car. Days later they called and told him to pick it up in the town of Douma, outside Damascus, where masked gunmen returned it to him. "They gave it back, but they didn't say what it was used for," he said.
Alongside the worsening security worries, an economic crisis sparked by months of unrest and Western sanctions has taken an ever deeper toll on daily life in the capital.
"For the past few months my husband's work has gone down horribly," Mervat said in her home in a middle-class district, whispering so that her two children, aged seven and nine, did not overhear her anxieties.
"We've been using our savings for the past two months. I want to leave the country until things are better, but my husband says this is his home and he will not leave."
Ahmad, a computer engineer who works abroad and was visiting his family in Midan district, said people were exhausted by the unrest. "They really want this to be over. We are drained, our country is drained and our economy is drained."
Syria stopped publishing economic statistics a year ago, making it hard to assess the impact of the turmoil. But oil exports to Europe have been cut off, costing Syria $3 billion by its own estimates, tourist revenue has collapsed and trade, business and manufacturing have all suffered.
"The economy has hit the bottom and society is fractured," said opposition activist Louay Hussein. "Unemployment is very high now. I think it has reached 80 percent. There is no work, no business. Nothing is working...
"Some people do not have money any more to buy the basics and are living on support from others."
Prices have more than doubled, with staple goods such as sugar, rice and meat all rising sharply. Some people said they were stocking up with at least a month's supplies.
"If the security situation gets worse I might be stuck with my family in the house, unable to leave for at least two weeks, so I always keep enough canned food," said 35-year-old Jamil.
TOURISTS LONG GONE
In the traditional Hamidiyeh market, traders spoke of slow business. Fresh pictures of Assad were pinned on the walls and the doors of some shops.
"There are only a few tourists coming to the country, some are Iranians and Pakistanis. They are not enough to revive the market," said one shopkeeper who declined to give his name.
In the old city of Damascus, shops, bakeries, restaurants and cafes were open as usual this week. Some were full and others were almost empty.
At one cafe three women were discussing the forthcoming presidential election in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year by street protests.
"Poor Egyptians. The future of their country has entered the unknown. Those Islamists are going to turn their lives to hell," said one carefully made-up woman in a sleeveless shirt.
"They are coming our way too," said her friend, pointing to the increasingly Islamist tone of an opposition movement which erupted in March last year with calls for greater freedoms. "Wait until they rule us."
The owner of a famous restaurant in the centre of Damascus said business had fallen by 70 percent since the unrest started.
"Things are very difficult now. Look around, today is a Friday and usually the restaurant is fully booked with families for lunch and dinner."
There was only one table occupied.
(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon)