'I escaped from Homs in February," said Abu Mohammed as his three children played in a nursery yard in Damascus. "We moved to Seida Zeinab and then that was bombed last month." All over the Syrian capital, in schools, hotels and houses, tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes because of war are now living in misery. They include hundreds who moved from other cities to what they thought was the safety of Damascus and have had to flee again.
Attacks on the capital's outlying districts continue relentlessly. In the leafy residential streets of central Damascus, the crump of distant artillery is a regular sound. People no longer shrink in horror but merely shrug and carry on.
The cafes halfway up the tawny brown ridge of Mount Qassioun, which stretches along the city's northern edge, remain open but visitors have to pass army checkpoints to get there, under the big guns on the plateau above.
As destruction creeps nearer, the mood has changed dramatically in the six months since I was last here. People on all sides – government sympathisers, opposition supporters and civilians who waver in the middle – all feel that has become a victim and a plaything taken over by foreigners. "The situation is no longer in the hands of Syrians. We are pawns in a big game," said Youssef Abdelke, a leading artist.
Whatever awaits them in the next few months, whether a change of regime, a political compromise or – the most likely scenario in the minds of people I spoke to – a further intensification of war, they feel it will be decided by outsiders.
Discussion among Damascenes no longer centres on whether to support change or stick with the status quo for fear that the alternative to Bashar al-Assad's regime will be worse. The focus is on priorities. Which objective is more urgent: to stop the killing or to topple a regime that has shown greater resilience than many predicted?
The argument that the opposition should negotiate with the regime about reform was never popular, given the regime's rejection of compromise and its record of detaining critics. Dialogue now seems an even more remote option.
Conversation centres on the tactics of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), or at least of those bands of young men who fight the government under its banner without co-ordination from any centre. Are they right to come into city districts and attack police and army buildings, knowing that retaliation will be massive, bloody and brutal? The army is to blame for destroying people's homes, but had the FSA not provoked it the homes might still be there and people might be alive.
Khaled, a young man who lives with his parents in Old Mezzeh, showed me around in February. His district used to consist of fields of cactus plants surrounding cheaply built one- and two-storey breezeblock houses. Some years ago the main road to Beirut was driven through this poor rural area, uprooting people. Then came other wide avenues that now serve the Canadian and Iranian embassies as well as high-rise flats, many of whose middle-class tenants are government employees and supporters.
The government mounted an offensive on Old Mezzeh last month. The army has since piled mounds of earth to block access except through two entrance roads behind the flats where troops check IDs. Other troops mount patrols inside the district. Sitting in a parked car outside the area this week, Khaled said the trouble began when a rumour spread that the shabiha (ghosts), the pro-government militias, were about to raid Old Mezzeh and slaughter people. "Women and children left immediately and only men stayed. I was at home with my father. We asked the FSA to come and protect us. When they arrived, some were local people whom I knew, others were outsiders. People gave them food but they didn't sleep in our houses. For five or six days they were there but when word came of a government offensive they withdrew so as not to have ordinary people get hurt," he said.
After the FSA retreated, the security forces moved in. According to Khaled, they looted and burned shops, and about 30 young men were killed. Burials were held in groups of three at night. Older men were detained.
Khaled and his father had left before the army incursion. Although his fellow villagers had invited the FSA, Khaled now thinks it was a mistake since they did not have the power to resist the army. "The tactics were not good. The FSA shouldn't come among houses since the security forces will destroy the area," he said.
In Midan, another mixed district of old houses and narrow alleys leading to a settlement of better-off flats, barely two miles from central Damascus, it was the FSA that took the offensive in mid-July, according to residents. Gunmen moved in surreptitiously and attacked police stations. The army responded by sending in tanks, whose treadmarks are still visible on the soft asphalt.
Residents showed me the al-Majed mosque, where a shell had taken a large bite out of the minaret. Several houses on street corners with good strategic views down the alleys had been damaged by heavy weapons. Bullet holes pockmarked metal shutters on shops, and I saw at least two cars that had been crushed by manoeuvring tanks. Anti-government graffiti had been painted over by troops.
Now, two weeks after the government counterattack, a few shopkeepers had reopened for business or were repairing their ruined premises, but many residents were still sheltering elsewhere. "It was foolish to try to attack, and it's caused heavy human loss," said Abdelaziz Alkhayer, a veteran member of the opposition who was released in 2005 after 14 years in prison.
"It was spontaneous, not well-organised, and they ran out of ammunition quickly. Some people who took part now feel deceived. We don't ask the FSA to put down their guns, otherwise they would be slaughtered. But they should not use them for offensives in city streets unless they can hold the ground."
Louai Hussein, another critic of the regime, who heads Building the Syrian State, a non-governmental organisation, said criticism of FSA tactics was growing. "Support for the FSA in these attacks depends on whether the insurgents are local or from the outside," he said.
Both men are longtime critics of the opposition's militarisation. Under the auspices of the Community of Sant'Egidio in Rome, a Catholic peace-building organisation with long international experience, they joined several other Syrian opposition groups last month in signing a declaration urging the FSA to abandon violence. "While recognising the right of citizens to legitimate defence, we repeat: weapons are not the solution," it said. "We must reject violence and the slide into civil war because that places at risk the state, and our national identity and sovereignty."
One person who took a sensational step in warning Syrians against self-destruction was Rima Dali, who became a political celebrity overnight in April when she staged a protest outside parliament holding a banner saying "stop the killing". Sarah Abu Assali, a local journalist, said she admired Dali's stand. "Within the areas of Damascus that have been affected by violence, I think the majority have turned against the FSA, but elsewhere more are moving towards it," she said. "I see an ongoing street war for at least a year – this is the best-case scenario."
After the collapse of Kofi Annan's mediation efforts and while the world's major powers arm the two sides, the chances of a political solution are much smaller than they were six months ago, in Assali's view. "The regime is more determined than ever, and innocent people will pay the price. The outside powers just want to watch us fight each other," she said.
In spite of recent high-level defections and the deaths of four senior security figures in a bombing last month, the regime's core appears solid. The army has recaptured lost ground in the city's inner districts and is trying to regain control of the eastern outskirts, in an area known as the Orchards, wearing down resistance by cutting off water and electricity, blocking access and inflicting heavy shelling and mass arrests.
In the old city of Damascus, residents report that guns are being distributed, presumably by the government, to Christians and Shias, two minorities that are particularly alarmed by the rise of militant Sunnism and the arrival of elements from al-Qaida.
Some government members accept they will never pacify the whole of Syria. "The government can hit the insurgents hugely and it can stop them existing in Aleppo but it can't stop them being in villages while the border is open. Military power has limits," said Kadri Jamil, a deputy prime minister.
The humanitarian crisis is immense. Hundreds of Syrians have left for Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) is distributing 175,000 food parcels within Syria. Close to a million people have been displaced countrywide.
In Damascus the numbers fluctuate as some people go home after a few days while others flee. Sixty schools are being used as temporary shelters, and the government has not yet responded to Sarc's question about what will happen in mid-September when children are due to resume classes.
To receive Sarc's aid, people have to be registered. Some fear this could lead to interrogation or arrest. In response, opposition supporters have set up independent shelters. Those who reject further militarisation are increasingly turning to humanitarian work as a way of taking non-violent action. They see it as a valuable form of political resistance.
In a disused health clinic and a nearby private nursery in Barzeh I found homeless families with terrible stories of bombing and killing. Food, clothing and sleeping mats are supplied by neighbours or funded through donations, bypassing Sarc.
"The country is almost destroyed. We have no idea what's going to happen," said Abu Mohammed, the father of three who was bombed out of Homs and bombed again in Damascus. "I never thought this could happen in Syria."
Rima Dali used to work for the United Nations refugee agency in Damascus, helping the thousands of homeless Iraqis who had fled to Syria. "I saw what civil war means and what being a refugee involves," she said.
The 33-year-old law graduate from Aleppo University felt depressed about Syria's criris and decided to act. "I didn't discuss my plan with friends because they would try to dissuade me. I just told them something important would happen outside parliament. About 50 turned up with cameras," she said.
There, on 8 April, she stood in the street in a red dress and poured white paint on herself. She held aloft a banner, saying: "Stop the Killing. We want to build a homeland for all Syrians." Within 10 minutes police arrested her and took her to a women's prison where she stayed for four days. "It didn't start as a campaign. It was a personal reaction. I was angry that nonviolent activity was losing its space. The government wanted to push people into violence because that's their game and they don't know how to deal with nonviolence," she said.
Dali is not sure how to take the protest further, though she has a team discussing ideas with sympathisers. One idea is to form a group of bereaved mothers of troops and rebels, to be called Mothers of Martyrs. "I'm not against the Free Syrian Army but I hope to make their role different. If you want to argue with them, you have to demonstrate an alternative, like supporting humanitarian relief and medical aid. We must talk about the ethics of the revolution and its mistakes," she said.