Sammy Ketz, AFP
Last updated: 16 November, 2012

Damascus taxi drivers face living nightmare

A multitude of checkpoints and the closure of half of the capital’s roads, not to mention frequent attacks, have turned daily life for the Syrian capital’s taxi drivers into a living nightmare.

“What makes a good taxi driver, anywhere in the world? It’s knowing the shortcuts, the sidestreets. It’s knowing which route to take in order to save the customer time,” said Abu Mohammed.

The 60-year-old has cruised the streets of Damascus with his yellow taxi cab ever since 1980.

“But now my experience is of little use, because every day, there are new roadblocks. More than half the city’s streets are cut off, especially the smaller ones. That just creates bigger jams on the main roads,” Abu Mohammed said.

Damascus has more than 1.7 million people and 30,000 taxis.

Thousands more drivers have arrived in the city since the March 2011 outbreak of violence across the country, mainly from cities such as Homs in the centre, Deir Ezzor in the east, and Aleppo in northern Syria.

“A journey that used to take me just 10 minutes has become at least half an hour long now,” said Abu Nidal, another veteran taxi driver.

“I spend ages trapped in traffic jams, and I use up more petrol. Before the city was cut up like it is now, I used to make 25,000 pounds ($340) a month. Now I make 14,000 ($200),” he said.

“But I can’t complain, because these measures were taken to protect residents’ security,” said Abu Nidal, who refused to reveal his real name for fear he might get into trouble.

Multiple bomb attacks have struck the capital since a major bombing in December 2011 killed at least 44 people and wounded another 166. Most have been car bombings claimed by a radical Islamist group, Al-Nusra Front.

All roads leading to ministries, government institutions, security headquarters and even some hotels have been sealed off with large concrete blocks.

Tanker trucks are not allowed in part of Sabaa Bahrat Square in central Damascus, for fear of suicide attacks on the central bank.

Added to the blockades are checkpoints set up by the security forces and the Popular Committees, created by supporters of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Gunmen frequently stop passing cars to check passengers’ identities.

And taxi drivers get harassed both by pro- and anti-regime elements.

“Our problem is that we are viewed with suspicion both by the regime and the rebels,” said Abu Lilas, 30, who started work as a taxi driver six years ago.

Rebels accuse the drivers of aiding the regime because members of the security forces used taxis to enter and attack the town of Daraya, southwest of Damascus, six months ago.

“The other side is suspicious too, because many taxis have been stolen and used to make car bombs,” said Abu Lilas.

Virtually no taxi driver is willing to risk his life by entering into combat zones or by going into the restive suburbs, home to some of Syria’s most hardened rebel groups.

“I’m not willing to venture out of of the city,” said Abu Hassan. “A mortar might destroy my car, thieves may steal it, or I might get beaten up or even killed by rebels.”

Abu Hassan’s life has changed radically because of the conflict. Whereas before he used to work 11-hour days, he now stops at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT).

“After that time, everyone is home. It’s useless to drive around looking for clients when there’s no one around,” he said.

“Our working hours have been reduced, and we no longer drive long distances — especially not to the outskirts,” said Abu Ammar. “We face endless traffic jams, and the minimum fare hasn’t been revised high enough.”