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Syria's Bus Drivers Brave War to Provide Transport

Bus companies operating between Lebanese and Syrian cities continue despite the high dangers of war.
A member of the Free Syrian Army walks past a damaged bus in Aleppo's Karm al-Jabal district, June 3, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman (SYRIA - Tags: CONFLICT POLITICS) - RTX10ALJ

BEIRUT/TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Amr, 35, from the Mansoura suburb of Aleppo, reclines across two seats near the front of a 50-seat bus in the decrepit surroundings of Beirut’s Charles Helou bus station. Sitting up, he yawns, tired, after the 300-kilometer [186-mile] journey that brought him to Beirut from Aleppo the previous day. Amr recounts a time when the journey took around five hours. That was before Syria’s civil war. Now, he says, the journey can take twice as long, due mainly to the proliferation of checkpoints — regime-controlled closer to Damascus and opposition-controlled closer to Aleppo — that line the highway at regular intervals.

“There were no problems on the way,” says Amr of the previous day’s journey, adding that he prefers to travel in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition. “It was normal — just long. Now I just want to get some rest before tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, Amr will make the return journey.

Travel in Syria can be fraught with danger. In contested areas, shelling and the potential to get caught up in skirmishes between government and opposition forces pose an ominous threat, while checkpoints are often a more frequent problem for conscription-age men dodging military service or families with known or perceived political and sectarian allegiances.

While Lebanon is witnessing an influx of Syrian refugees into the country — a flow unlikely to abate anytime soon — for Amr and other drivers traveling back and forth across the landscape of Syria’s civil conflict provides the opportunity to make a decent living. Amr says he makes between $300 to $400 a month. Regardless of US military intervention, he will continue making the round trip from Aleppo to Beirut and back.

“I make a good living, I can provide for my family,” says Amr. “I don’t know how to do anything else, and there are no jobs in Syria.”

“I fear more for my family in Aleppo than I do for myself on the road.”

Fifty meters away in the small ticket office of “Super Jwan” — a coach company specializing in travel from Beirut to destinations including the Kurdish towns of Qamishli and Efrin, in addition to Aleppo and Deir Ezzor — a small group of Arab and Kurdish drivers converse over cups of coffee. Some express support for the Assad regime, others for the opposition, though the general mood leans more toward apathy. All have experienced their share of danger on the road, a few say they have paid small bribes to avoid hassle at checkpoints and ensure safe passage. In particular, they identify travel at night, when bandits emerge and prowl the highway, as a no-go.

“We were about to depart Aleppo. Everyone was on the bus,” says Mahmud, 52, recalling one particular close call.

“A guy from the Free Syrian Army came into the area and started ordering everyone to shut their shops. One man complained. There was an altercation and the next thing I saw was the man from the FSA falling to the ground. He had been shot,” Mahmud recounts.

“Within minutes more FSA entered the area and started shooting. I just lay down in the aisle until it was over. People on the bus were screaming.”

“Afterwards, I continued with the journey,” says Mahmud stoically.

Just off Sahet el-Nour in Tripoli, calls of “Sham (Damascus), Latakia, Tartus, Homs” ring out amongst the din of the traffic. Yellow tape covers sections of the road designating that parking is forbidden in such areas — a safety measure introduced following the twin bombings that rocked Lebanon’s second city on Friday, Aug. 23. Sitting on a plastic chair street-level, Abu Wasim Al-Ratil (a pseudonym), owner of Safriyat al-Ruksy, a private taxi firm of 150 cars, notes his support for the Syrian opposition, but expresses fear as to whether US intervention, without Arab League support, will serve merely to inflame the situation not just across the border, but in Lebanon itself.

Despite his concerns for stability, Ratil notes that the increased flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has been good for business, with increased profit margins since last year.

“Yes, business is good,” says Ratil with a wry smile, explaining that a one-way trip to Latakia costs around 22,000 Lebanese lira ($14.65).

“Of course, there are many people coming to Lebanon from Syria, but many who work here return regularly to visit their families. There are sometimes problems traveling through checkpoints, but it is not like during the civil war here.”

In the background, a middle-aged man puts a small bag into the back of a taxi before approaching to say goodbye to Ratil. The man is going to Damascus to get his family before returning to Lebanon.

“The situation is getting too dangerous,” he says before getting into the taxi.

Back at Charles Helou in Beirut, Issam, 18, stands outside the Super Jwan ticket office. In his right hand he holds a ticket for Hassakeh, in his left a large navy blue bag. An accounting student, Issam has been based in the Haret Hreik neighborhood of Beirut’s southern suburbs for the past three months, where he claims to have attended a military college. The journey to regime-controlled Hassakeh will take around 12 hours.

Issam says he is happy in Beirut, but is returning to Syria out of a sense of duty.

“The situation in Syria is getting worse and I think I should be there at this time,” says Issam. “I don’t accept foreign involvement at all. We will be shields in the face of the invaders.”

Inside the ticket office, some of the drivers express fear that US intervention could see Syria become the “new Iraq.” Others draw reference to Afghanistan. A few voices claim that come US intervention, they will pledge their support to the Assad regime.

Departing the small office, Abdul Rahman, 22, from Manbij in the Aleppo governorate, reflects sadly on the state of affairs within his homeland.

“People now will follow the media of the Assad regime and call the opposition ‘terrorists,’ but these same people will also call Assad a ‘criminal.’ A lot of people are neither with the regime nor the opposition. They are stuck between both.”

Outside, Issam places his navy blue bag into the hold before making his way onto the half-full coach, ready for his 12-hour journey through his war-torn homeland to reach Hassakeh, over 500 km away.

Martin Armstrong is a former feature writer for Lebanon's The Daily Star currently based in Beirut. His work has been featured in publications including Open Democracy, VICE, Dazed and Confused, and the Chicago Tribune. On Twitter: @scotinbeirut

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