Syria’s dangerous roads
Damascus - More than four years into a brutal and devastating conflict, Syrian provinces have been turned into “isolated islands”, making travel between them a perilous journey undertaken only by the daring or the desperate.
The interweaving of areas controlled by warring parties and the large number of checkpoints manned by the different groups make Syrian roads the world’s most dangerous, where travellers venture at their own risk. The large road network criss-crossing the country is largely deserted, inflicting huge economic losses on public transportation and movement by trucks transporting merchandise through Syria to Jordan and the Arab Gulf countries.
Matters worsened after the Nasib crossing on the Syrian-Jordanian border fell into opposition hands in April, depriving trucks of the sole remaining route to reach the Gulf. More than 70,000 Syrian trucks have been idled in addition to thousands of foreign-registered vehicles that used to cross Syrian territory en route to Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
The public transportation sector has come to a near-total standstill, dropping to less than 3% of all transport used compared to what it was prior to the outbreak of the crisis in 2011. “For instance, the number of buses travelling on the Damascus-Aleppo line dropped from 500 daily trips to no more than ten, in the best days,” noted Ahmad Salem, a Pullman driver from Aleppo.
“In many cases, buses are grounded for several days because of security reasons or the absence of travellers,” Salem said. “No one is risking his life on the dangerous road unless for big emergencies, such as medical reasons or to leave the country.”
Big buses that used to operate international routes are lined up on Adawi highway in Damascus, covered with dust. They were moved there after the main bus station in Harasta, on the capital’s northern entrance, was destroyed in the fighting two years ago.
Abou Yehya, a driver from Damascus, argued that the blurred demarcation lines separating government forces from the rebels increased the risk of road travel. “People are scared of checkpoints. They fear that their names might figure on government or rebel wanted lists or they could be mistaken for wanted persons because of similarities in names,” he said.
“In addition to that, the journey between Aleppo and Damascus is taking between 10 to 12 hours whereas it took less than 4 hours in normal times and the cost of travel has skyrocketed to 3,000 Syrian pounds ($10) from 200 pounds (60 cents) for a seat.”
While certain provinces could be accessed at high risk, others, such as Hasakah in northern Syrian, are completely cut off from the rest of the country. After seizing the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, the Islamic State (ISIS) has effectively isolated the mainly Kurdish area.
“Hasakah province lives in complete isolation. All roads are blocked by ISIS,” said journalist Ali Kojari from the city of Qamishli. “The sole roads leading to the province, namely the Damascus- Palmyra-Deir ez-Zor-Hasakah, and the Aleppo-Raqqa-Hasakah, are hijacked by ISIS and anyone who dares to venture on these roads does that at his own risk and responsibility.”
Although the rare journeys from Hasakah are coordinated in advance with parties on the ground, many buses have been bombed or confiscated and travellers robbed and kidnapped.
“The few private transport companies that continued to operate have lost many buses. Travellers are notified prior to the journey that the company cannot be held responsible for any incident that could occur on the way, including robbery and killing,” Kojari said.
Even within provinces falling under the control of the same group, roads are fraught with danger because of bandits and sudden flares of fighting. “In one instance, clashes between ISIS and regime forces blocked a main road in Raqqa for three days, stranding us inside our vehicles in the middle of the winter cold,” said Ibrahim Ahmad, a truck driver from Raqqa.
ISIS’s decision to ban men under 60 and women under 50 from leaving territories under their control further slowed travel in the province, forcing transport companies to close.
One company owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Before 2011, there were five security branches to whom we offered gifts, such as free rides, to facilitate our operation. But with ISIS arrival in Raqqa, in 2013, some 72 units have taken control of the place and keep asking for favours that I could not afford, so I closed down the company and moved to Damascus.”
In the northern province of Idlib, which lies between Aleppo and the Syrian coast, people have been using side roads to avoid security checkpoints manned by both government forces and the rebels. However, all roads were reopened to traffic after the opposition forces seized the area. “The main danger on these roads is that they are regularly targeted by air strikes from Syrian planes and the US-led coalition fighting ISIS,” noted Imad Mohamad from Idlib city.
Incidents in which vehicles were targeted at checkpoints have claimed the lives of scores of civilians. “Only a few days ago, gunmen at an opposition checkpoint near Maarat al-Nu’man opened fire at an ambulance travelling at high speed with the lights dimmed, fearing it was a suicide attempt. A nurse was killed and the driver suffered grave injuries,” Mohamad added.