Syrians wanting to travel on the cheap use what is called a servees: mini-buses, often white, that run on specific routes in cities and towns throughout Syria.
For at least the past year, Syria Direct has heard reports of regime troops, strapped for supply vehicles, commandeering not only serveeses but also civilian-owned vehicles to move supplies and weapons from one front in central Syria to another.
In Hama city, many of the routes run from the city itself to different areas in the surrounding countryside. But more and more servees drivers in and around the regime-controlled provincial capital are reporting the confiscation of their vehicles at checkpoints to be sent to regime fronts in central Homs province and south Aleppo, Khalid a-Shami, an independent activist originally from Hama city but now living in the rebel-held northern part of the province, tells Syria Direct’s Omaima al-Qasem.
Here, two serves drivers, Abu Daraar and Abu Ahmad, tell al-Qasem their stories.
As Abu Ahmad wryly puts it when asked about compensation for his confiscated vehicle: “How can I get compensated if I can’t even say a word without having my fate be the same as that of the servees?”
Abu Ahmad, a resident of Hama city and father of six who worked as a servees driver for 10 years
Q: Describe what happened to you as a servees driver.
I had a servees and worked all the time to make a living and meet the daily needs of my six children. When things recently began to heat up in Palmyra, I heard that the Syrian army was commandeering our vehicles to transport its soldiers there.
So I reduced the amount of time I worked to just five hours per day. On Sunday, March 15, I was on my way home after working when I was stopped at a flying checkpoint [a mobile checkpoint that can pop up anywhere and at any time.] It was at the western entrance to Hama city. There, they informed me that they needed to commandeer the servees and they would return it to me after a week at the Hama airport [a military airport located on the western outskirts of Hama city].
After a week, I went back to the airport. But they told me to come back after another two days. I returned several times after that and on Sunday, March 27, they demanded that I not return because armed groups had destroyed the servees during the battle.
Serveeses near the Hama airport. Photo contributed by an activist in Hama city who wished to remain anonymous.
Q: What was your response when you heard this?
I wasn’t able to utter a single word out of fear that they would arrest me. What could I do if the upholders of the law themselves are the ones who wronged me and deprived me of my only livelihood? How can I get compensated if I can’t even say a word without having my fate be the same as that of the servees?
Q: What are you doing now to make a living?
I am not working now, but my 20-year-old son Ahmad works at a store selling electronics to put food on the table.
Abu Daraar, a resident of Hama city who has worked for the past 12 years as a servees driver
Q: Describe what happened to you as a servees driver.
I was going through checkpoints daily and I never had any problems while working. However one day, a soldier at one of the checkpoints demanded that I hand over my servees. I was able to bribe him by paying SP25,000 (approximately $114) and he didn’t take my vehicle.
After a month passed, I was stopped at the same checkpoint. I assumed they wanted a bribe like last time, but the officer at the checkpoint refused and commandeered the servees. He told me to go to the Hama airport to get it back later.
After I went several times to the airport over the course of a month and a half and paid an officer working at the airport SP150,000 (approximately $680), I was able to get the servees back. But it was in terrible condition. It had been gutted. The interior had been ripped out; even the back seats. When I inquired about the cost of the maintenance, they told me it would cost me more than half the total value of the vehicle to get it back to the same condition it was in before. So I sold it out of fear that the same thing would happen again.
Q: How did you react to what happened to you?
The situation is abysmal. There is no law or security in areas controlled by the regime. Any normal soldier can demand anything from any citizen and we have to comply without protest.
Q: How are you making a living now?
I do whatever odd jobs I can find.
Khalid a-Shami, an independent activist originally from Hama city who now lives in the rebel-held northern part of the province
Q: Is the regime still commandeering serveeses after the fall of Palmyra?
What’s going on in Palmyra isn’t the reason serveeses are being commandeered. Over the past four years, the regime has confiscated more than 50 percent of the serveeses and trucks in Hama and the countryside and sent them to the active fronts. But this has increased recently with events in Aleppo and Palmyra.
Hyundais, Kias and these types of vehicles have been confiscated to the point that there are practically none left in Hama province because they can carry weapons and ammunition. Other types of big vehicles are also commandeered such as tractor trucks and trailers. There aren’t any more Suzukis because they are all taken by the regime.
Q: How are servees drivers and owners responding to this?
The drivers haven’t protested in any way. The only thing that anyone can do is to give a bribe at the checkpoint or to the patrol that wants to commandeer their vehicle. Some of the drivers are able to keep them from confiscating their vehicles while others aren’t, even if they try and give a bribe. There are also instances when the drivers will disappear without a trace along with their serveeses. Sometimes it’s discovered that they were killed, while others are detained.
I know some people whose serveeses, or vehicles for hire, have been confiscated. They aren’t returned to them unless they have wasta [social “pull” or connections] or pay a big bribe. Some of them have gotten their vehicles back eventually, but they are in horrible conditions and need repairs costing half their value. Others get their vehicles taken and only get them back after two years.
This is why the provincial council started dispatching big buses to compensate for the lack of internal transportation. Public buses had stopped running for a long time, but the provincial council repaired them and are now operating them inside Hama city and in the countryside to mitigate the confiscation of vehicles.
Q: In your opinion, why is the regime commandeering vehicles?
People have started buying small FAW trucks [small, Chinese-made, single cab pickup trucks] because they are less likely to be commandeered since its towing capacity is only 500kg and the regime doesn’t want them.
Q: People we interviewed who had their serveeses confiscated mentioned that they had to go to the Hama airport to get their vehicles back and not to the security branch or police. Why the airport specifically?
Because all of the vehicles that are commandeered are moved to the Hama airport, where preparation for military campaigns takes place. It is from here that they are gathered together and then sent to Palmyra or the southern and northern Aleppo countrysides.