Jennie Matthew, AFP
Last updated: 1 November, 2012

Taxi drivers dodge snipers on Syrian frontline

Taxi driver Abu Mohammed cheated death when the sniper opened fire. The bullet whistled past his right temple and shot his female customer on the back seat of his yellow cab.

Like scores of drivers in Aleppo, he risks his life every day to ferry passengers across the frontlines of Syria’s vicious civil war, battling to stay alive and feed their families.

“I was coming back across Ramousa bridge when the sniper shot at me. The bullet whizzed straight past my face,” he says, miming with his hand the trajectory of the bullet racing millimetres (inches) from his brain.

“It wounded my sister-in-law in the arm. After that, the sniper fired another three or four bullets. I didn’t stop for another three or four kilometres, then when I did, I made a tourniquet for her arm,” he says.

That was two weeks ago. Now his wife worries every time he leaves the small flat, praying to God that he will return safe and sound at the end of his shift.

A fellow taxi driver, the son of a friend, has already been killed. Bullet holes and shattered windscreens are not uncommon to see on Aleppo taxis.

“I am afraid and I take a lot more care now,” says Abu Mohammed, who at 52 is a grandfather six times over and still has a 14-year-old son living at home.

But it’s not just snipers he has to worry about. Fuel prices have doubled since the conflict began and he’s convinced that marketeers dilute it with water. He says he takes home half the money he used to.

Then there is the problem of navigating checkpoints, where rebels and regime agents alike flag down vehicles on the lookout for spies.

Passengers can be arrested.

For those who live in rebel-held areas, dealing with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the plethora of other armed groups is straightforward. It’s the questions and the checks they endure at the hands of the government that worry them.

“In the FSA areas, they say ‘as-salaam aleikoum and can I see your ID’. He looks at it and then says you can go,” says another taxi driver, Abu Mahmoud, also 52.

“But in the areas under regime control, they ask ‘where are you going, where have you come from’ and search the boot and everything in the car… Then they search and check the passengers. Some of them have been arrested.”

He fears the snipers, shelling, air strikes and the planes that circle overhead, panicking about where they will drop their deadly payloads.

But he is also frightened for his two sons, currently doing their national service for President Bashar al-Assad’s army, which has refused to de-enlist the eldest.

“I’m scared for my sons. I live in a liberated area and they’re in Damascus. I’m afraid because the army doesn’t let them come on leave. One son has now been kept on a year and three months after his service finished,” he said.

Abu Mahmoud works from 7:00 am to 4:00 or 5:00 pm — basically until dusk which falls earlier now as winter sets in. He doesn’t think it’s safe to work at night.

“This is a good job for me. I’ve got six children and I earn 5-600 Syrian pounds ($6-7) a day. It’s not enough, life is very expensive but it’s better than sitting around doing nothing,” he said.

Families are divided across enemy lines. Many have abandoned homes held by the rebels for the relative safety behind government lines, where the opposition lacks the arsenal to cause major damage.

They take taxis to visit abandoned homes in shattered apartment blocks, check their possessions haven’t been stolen and retrieve winter clothes. Mattresses are then strapped to the taxi roof and bags crammed into the boot.

As many as four women, heavily veiled, can be crammed into the back seat with assorted children; another child perched on the knee of a father in front.

Taxis may be ubiquitous, but for the poorest passengers minivans, that drop passengers off in turn, are the only option.

“Before you could go downtown for 10 Syrian pounds, but not anymore,” said Umm Ahmed who brought her one-year-old grandson to hospital with a giant, swollen insect bite bulging out of his neck.

“As it is, my daughter (the child’s mother) was too scared to come out. She’s not brave enough to see this,” says the 40-year-old, nodding at the child’s neck. “And she’s scared of the shelling,” she added.