Latakia driver compelled to captain evacuation buses as ‘national duty’

Jaafar, a 40-year-old bus driver from the government-held, coastal province of Latakia, has been crisscrossing Syria behind the wheel of his privately owned coach for nearly 10 years.

On any given day, the father of four waits for passengers at a station in Latakia city—a place largely spared the direct violence seen in other parts of Syria—and then departs for nearby destinations along the coast or major, government-held cities such as Homs and Damascus. Sometimes, his routes reach as far as Lebanon.

But on one December day in 2016, Jaafar received an unusual trip request that threw him straight into the heart of the Syrian war. It came not from a prospective passenger but rather from local traffic police officers, who showed up at the station unannounced.

“We’ve picked your bus to help us transport terrorists,” he recalls them telling him. “This is your national duty.”

Then, the police seized his ID, topped off his gas tank and sent him north, he says, to embattled, rebel-controlled east Aleppo, where he participated in the evacuation of thousands of civilians and fighters that marked the end of a years-long battle for Syria’s second city.

The unexpected journey was the first of six similar trips in which Jaafar asserts he was compelled to join the infamous convoys of buses that carried residents from formerly besieged territories—including Homs, East Ghouta and south Damascus—to opposition strongholds in the northwest.

Jaafar, who uses a pseudonym for fear of repercussions for speaking to the media, says he is not alone. He claims that local police randomly selected drivers to participate in recent evacuations, and that he and others were given no compensation for their time or for any damages that might occur en route.

Syria Direct spoke to a second Latakia-based driver who substantiated Jaafar’s story, but could not  independently verify the drivers’ claims. The Syrian Ministry of the Interior did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

“I don’t want to get involved in such matters,” Jaafar tells Syria Direct’s Adeeb Mansour. Mansour, who lives in the opposition-held Aleppo countryside, met Jaafar earlier this month when the bus driver arrived there transporting evacuees from south Damascus.

With the recent government recapture of Syria’s last besieged, opposition-held territories, the future role of evacuations—and by extension drivers such as Jaafar—remains uncertain.

Jaafar worries he may have no choice other than to captain another trip but does not dare oppose state authorities.

“We’re powerless,” he says.

Bus drivers rest in the luggage cabins of a bus while evacuating East Ghouta residents in April. Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP.

Q: What happened the first time you were asked to transport evacuees? Did the police explain why you were being asked to do this?

When the police came for the first time [in late 2016], they said: ‘We’ve picked your bus to help us transport terrorists out of Aleppo. This is your national duty.’ They asked for the bus documents and [my] ID, saying: ‘These will stay with us until you return.’

Nobody can say anything or object to the police, because the fate [of those who do] is well known, especially if they don’t have wasta [connections]. As the saying goes: Act first, ask questions later.

But of course I didn’t want to get involved in such matters. I don’t want to take any side in the war, and I don’t want to put my life in danger to defend someone or something that I’m not convinced of.

They force us to [participate] in the trips against our will.

Q: In your experience, do the police choose particular bus drivers to conduct these operations, or is the selection random? Are there any safety guarantees?

The selection is done arbitrarily, and they force everyone to go—unless [the driver] has strong wasta and can get out of it through those connections. Those who can get out of it don’t hesitate to do so.

No one gave us any guarantees, despite the fact that we’re facing death and danger from all sides, everywhere [we go]. We’re forced to do it, and we’re powerless.  

The driver isn’t compensated at all if he’s harmed in any way. Drivers also aren’t paid any sort of fare, which is why most don’t want to take part. [The authorities] just fill [the bus] once, and if we need diesel again, we fill up at our own expense, since we need to return home.

Q: During the evacuations, do you interact with the passengers at all? What is the atmosphere on the bus like?

Of course there is interaction between us, even if only minimal—and it’s very normal, other than a bit of caution from some [passengers]. In the end, they’re all Syrians and civilians, and they know that most of us [drivers] are forced to do this.

I usually have some food or sweets on the bus, which I give to the children, since I know they were besieged and are eager to eat everything that they were deprived of. It is good to see their joy and the smiles on their faces. Sometimes, the guys who are really craving a smoke will come over to me, and I’ll give them a cigarette if I’ve got one on me.

Q: What kinds of challenges have you faced during the evacuations, and could you share with us a memorable situation that happened to you on the road?

There is constant fear, restlessness and discontent when [we bus drivers] hear of any new settlement between the government and the opposition, because that means new trips will be taking place.

The biggest danger that I might face is death due to vengeful acts by any side, which have recurred a number of times when a convoy of buses passes through areas control by the Syrian government and [its] supporters. Some convoys have been shot at.

My bus was damaged [this month] when we were transporting people from south Damascus to the northern Aleppo countryside. While en route through the villages of Sahl al-Ghab, the front window of my bus was broken by [government] supporters throwing rocks. I wasn’t compensated at all and had to pay for everything out of my own pocket. Thank God I wasn’t harmed.

Furthermore, [there is] the bombardment that we could face when entering opposition territories, and changes to the route or being forbidden entry, [events that] extend the length of the trip.

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Bus drivers eat as they wait to complete evacuations from East Ghouta in April. Photo courtesy of Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images.  

Q: Out of all the trips you conducted, which one was the most difficult?

All of the trips were difficult, but the hardest was the last trip from south Damascus, because we had to wait a long time before the bus departed for northern Syria. And when we arrived to the area near [opposition-held] al-Bab city [in Aleppo], we stayed there for more than 48 hours, waiting for permission from the Turkish side to enter.

All of this happens while we’re cut off from our livelihood: We lose fares for each day that passes. I have children and a family that I provide for.

Q: Have you considered leaving your job to avoid having to make these trips?

I’ve thought a lot about working in another profession and selling the bus, but a move like that requires planning and courage. My financial situation is difficult, and finding new work would be extremely hard. The change could take time, and during that period, how can I provide for myself and my family?

I also thought about [temporarily] stopping work and parking the bus somewhere whenever I hear about a new transport operation, but I’m afraid I could face interrogation if a detective or the security [forces] found out. In such an instance, I’d be seen as trying to dodge [the request], or as unwilling to do work for the government.

Q: When you do you expect the next trip will be?

To be honest, I don’t know, but anything is possible. I hope there isn’t a new trip.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani is from Latakia province. She studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor in Syria. She has worked at Syria Direct since 2015 and was named the 2018 Middle East and North Africa Laureate for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' (WAN-IFRA) Women in News Editorial Leadership Award.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.