This article was previously published on Syria Deeply.
By Ayham al-Khalaf
Anas, 27, drives one of the world’s most unusual—and dangerous—bus routes. Every day, he drives a bus between parts of Aleppo under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and areas controlled by IS and the government. A typical journey, he says, takes up to 12 hours.
Worse, his bus has been hit by shelling while travelling along al-Haidaria Street in the east of Syria’s largest city.
Anas, who lives in al-Shaar neighborhood, considers driving the bus a step down from the taxi he used to pilot around in the northern city, but with a wife and two children to support, he needs the work. The bus, he says, actually belongs to his neighbor.
Anas spoke to Syria Deeply about the arduous journey across the fractured city.
Syria Deeply: Can you tell us about the stages and checkpoints you go through on your journeys?
Anas: I go out daily in the morning from the Free Syrian Army areas with 14 passengers in the bus. Most of them are elderly men and women because of the decision made by the government to recruit men between the ages of 19 and 45. I cross an FSA checkpoint at Baadein Square in eastern Aleppo, then I reach the checkpoint in the village of Basheqoi. The road is very rugged from the beginning of the journey until the edges of al-Bab town, which is controlled by IS. The first IS checkpoint is around the entry of al-Bab. They check IDs thoroughly and carefully, especially the IDs of those between the ages of 19 and 22. They also check for women travelling in the bus alone without a husband or “unmarriageable male,” meaning without a son, a male nephew, or a brother of at least 14 years old. If a woman doesn’t have anyone with her that meets these conditions, then those at the checkpoint order me to go back to where I came from. These procedures are practiced by all IS checkpoints in the eastern countryside of Aleppo.
After that we arrive to Atharia, which separates the government and IS areas. The first checkpoint is almost 80 km away, which is a safe distance between IS and the government. The first regime checkpoint stops us at Atharia. This is a National Defence forces checkpoint, and they don’t ask for IDs, they just ask for no less than 500 liras for each bus.
After Atharia we reach a military police checkpoint at the border of Khanasser town. They ask for our IDs and they thoroughly search all the luggage. They destroy all food items, especially the Turkish ones. We then go into Khanasser town, which connects Aleppo province with Hama province. There are four National Defence and security checkpoints. Then there is Safira town, where we pass by a Hezbollah checkpoint. Of course there are Syrian members at this checkpoint but their leaders are Lebanese. When we pass through Khanasser and Safira, we see houses and farms that have been completely destroyed by battles and shelling.
After the many regime checkpoints at the entrances of towns we go through, we arrive at al-Ramousa, which is at the entrance of Aleppo from the southwestern side. Here we stop at a regime checkpoint that examines IDs and forces passengers to pay taxes on valuable assets. Sometimes I can be detained at this checkpoint for three to five hours, but sometimes it’s only half an hour.
Afterwards, we arrive at al-Hamadania, where we get stopped at a checkpoint known as “3,000 Apartments.” This checkpoint has a bad reputation for harsh inspections—many people have been arrested and beaten while passing through it for the silliest reasons. However, anyone can pay them and pass safely. Then I reach the New Aleppo area with no checkpoints, and the journey of eight to 12 hours ends.
Syria Deeply: What are some of the situations you’ve faced?
Anas: Once, at one of the IS checkpoints, they asked a young man to get off the bus because they didn’t like his clothes. They searched through his cell phone then they beat and arrested him in spite of his mother’s begging.
Another time we arrived at the IS checkpoint in al-Bab where a man and a woman were sitting on a bench next to each other. I thought they were husband and wife because when a man and a woman arrive together, I ask them if they are married.
One of the IS men asked the man if she was his wife and he said yes. He asked for his ID and started checking it. Then he took her ID and started asking them questions separately about the names of each other’s parents. He found out that the woman wasn’t his wife but his neighbor, and the man had to say she was his wife because she didn't have an unmarriageable man or a husband.
They kept him for an hour and a half, then one of the IS men came and told me to be on my way, but I objected and asked him to release the man. He threatened to arrest me if I didn’t go. I asked him again to release him so he ordered me to go back to where I came from, and I was only halfway done with my journey.
I will tell you a funny story, although it's also sad. Once a young man was sitting on the seat next to me, and he had a funny-looking hairstyle. Before we reached the IS checkpoint in the town of Der Hafer, I stopped the bus and told him to get off and change his hairstyle so he wouldn't get into trouble with IS. He got off, went to a barber shop, and had his hair cut. When he came back he was upset and frowning. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me the barber was cutting fish before he started cutting the guy’s hair. He said, “Now I stink and I’m going to see my fiancée with this look and this smell.”
Syria Deeply: What is the hardest stage of this trip?
Anas: For my passengers, they fear IS the most because their members have repeatedly assaulted civilians. One of the passengers once told me that when he passes by these checkpoints, he feels like he’s not in Syria but in Afghanistan or Chechnya. When we pass by the FSA or government checkpoints, people seem calm and at ease, because the FSA is considered peaceful and its members don’t assault anyone. If the government troops attack someone, things can be worked out with money, and you can buy the officer and his men for a small amount of money.
When I arrive at a government checkpoint, I ask the passengers to show their IDs and not to speak with the guards to decrease the chances of someone getting arrested or us staying too long. When I arrive at one of the IS checkpoints, I ask women to cover their faces with their veils and hide any parts of their bodies, because if they notice anything about the women in the bus, they make me go all the way back.
Syria Deeply: What is the cost of this trip for the passengers and for the bus?
Anas: The cost of this trip is 2,000 for a person, but it is not always the same. Sometimes the price of fuel increases, so I have to ask for more from the passengers. I pay a total of about 15,000 Syrian pounds for fuel and bribes.
Syria Deeply: Why do passengers move daily between the two sides of the city in spite of the difficulty of this journey?
Anas: I take about 14 passengers on my way there, and the next day I travel back again with the same number of passengers. It's a variety of reasons; some of them trade products that are rare in one of the two areas, some are college students traveling weekly or monthly from the FSA areas into the government areas, and others go to be treated in the hospitals in the government areas.
Syria Deeply: What are your thoughts about Syria, and what do you see as the solution?
Anas: I feel sorry when I see how much citizens have to pay from al-Bab to al-Sulaimania. While they used to pay no more than 10 liras ($0.05) in a bus and 50 liras ($0.25) in a taxi in a journey that took no more than 10 minutes, now they suffer all this for the same distance. This is only one example, and you can measure everything else the same way. It hurts me a lot to see what has become of our country, and I don’t think any of the parties will win. The military solution is not the answer. I hope we can reach a political solution to save our country from this vicious war that destroyed everyone and everything, and the biggest loser in it is these poor people.
Ayham al-Khalaf is a contributor at Syria Deeply.