As the US considers a strike on Syria and allegations of a chemical weapon attack fly, drivers continue to ferry Syrians around the war-torn country and back and forth across its southern border with Jordan.
For the estimated 1.3 million Syrians living in the safety of Jordan, the trips are perilous, but considered essential. Many return home temporarily to see family members left behind, others to check on property or business assets.
For the drivers, who are mostly Syrian, the job is a financial lifeline in a desolate economy. Syrians who have fled to Jordan aren’t allowed to work officially and jobs are even harder to come by at home.
The crossing point is subject to closure from either side’s border guards and had previously been shut to buses for six weeks due to fighting on the Syrian side. After it reopened in early July, just before the holy month of Ramadan, demand was such that up to four buses left Amman for Syria daily. Today the numbers prepared to travel fluctuate depending on security reports from friends and family in Syria.
One Syrian driver, who requested anonymity, has carried passengers from Jordan to Syria and back for 10 years. His family remains in Syria but he stays in Amman. He continues to drive his bus from the Jordanian capital of Amman, 55 miles from the Syrian border, through the volatile Syrian province of Daraa, where the uprising began, to Damacus. Before the uprising, the route used to be popular with tourists and day-trippers.
“I go to Damascus every four or five days and return the same day. It’s normally fine but sometimes there are problems at the checkpoints,” he says.
The trip from Amman to Damascus used to last two to three hours, but now take eight due to the countless checkpoints in Syria. Ghassan Zaza, the office manager of an Amman-based travel company, says that he used to take 40 dinars from each passenger in order to pay off the checkpoint soldiers.
“As a driver, you’re helpless. Sometimes we had to sit and wait at the border for five hours. We were stopped at Army checkpoints and had to pay. The regime soldiers take money and mobile phones from passengers, anything they want. Even rice, lentils, cigarettes – they take whatever they want,” says Mr. Zaza, who used to shuttle people between Amman, Damascus, and Beirut in a private taxi.
He says his drivers and passengers are frequently robbed at gunpoint and the buses have been fired on many times as they traverse contested areas.
The man who continues to drive his bus to and from Syria said the price of a ticket has increased because he has to pay off soldiers, but he still takes home the same money as he did before the conflict.
“I’ve never thought about stopping. I have a family in Syria. If I quit, they would starve. I’m not worried about my safety – death is death, it’s written.”
Faith of this kind is rare among the drivers at Zaza’s Alia Travel, which runs buses and private taxis from the Jordanian capital to Damascus and Aleppo. He said that 50 drivers have changed routes away from Syria since 2011, instead driving to safer destinations in Saudi Arabia or Iraq.
“Our buses and cars have been shot at. We’ve lost five drivers in the last two years. The latest death was just before Ramadan. The motorway to Daraa can be very dangerous,” he says.
Until recently, his drivers had no other option, because the alternative safer route through Sweida, a Syrian town that has largely avoided the fighting, had been closed by the Free Syrian Army for strategic reasons. It was reopened a week ago but the viability of the route remains unpredictable.
He ended his trips after witnessing the Syrian Army’s takeover of Khirbet Ghazaleh, a town on the main route linking Damascus to Jordan.
“It was the worst time of my life. The Syrian army were attacking the town and had taken control. They were burning houses, destroying everything. I saw soldiers leading families from their homes. Soldiers were dragging half dressed women into their vehicles. They kept me there for two hours and eventually I got out. I already knew that every time I left Amman that there was a possibility I wouldn’t come back. After that day I stopped driving,” he says.
Still, the buses continue to run. On Wednesday about 20 Syrians boarded the midnight bus to Damascus, while a small crowd lingered on the pavement, saying emotional goodbyes. Among them was a young Syrian man who was going home for the first time in two years.
“I know it’s dangerous but I want to see my mother and brothers. I’m a bit scared because I posted anti-regime things online but I’m not worried by reports about chemical weapons and the Americans preparing attacks. I just need to get home.”