Syria’s green buses now run on tears


Cii Radio| Ayesha Ismail| 04 November 2016| 03 Safar 1438

The lime-green buses once ferried Syrians to school, work and dates at Damascus cafes. Now they pull up at moments of defeat, when rebel fighters and civilians, besieged and bombarded, give up their territory to government forces and board the vehicles en route to an uncertain future.

The buses, once a benign, even beloved feature of the urban landscape, have become a signature of the Syrian government’s starve-or-surrender strategy. In recent days, government warplanes dropped fliers on the rebel-held districts of Aleppo, offering a stark choice to the estimated 250,000 people trapped in that strategic city: “doom”, represented by a photo of a bloody body, or “redemption”, in the form of a green bus.

Images of the buses are everywhere: on state television reports and pro-government websites celebrating the evacuations, and on opposition videos mourning what they call deportations. Women and children, or fighters with guns, peer from their windows. They cry, chant defiantly or stare into space as they leave areas that have long symbolised revolt against President Bashar Al Assad, like the recently emptied Damascus suburb of Daraya.

Riders are usually offered a choice between two destinations, but as with so many aspects of the bloody and chaotic Syrian civil war, both options are bad. They can take the green buses to government territory, where many fear arrest and conscription, or to another rebel-held area, where they face continued government airstrikes — like the ones that hit a school last Wednesday and killed 22 children in Idlib province.

“Damn the green buses, I’m seeing them in my dreams,” said Jalal Al Telawi, 36, a computer technician whose neighbours in Waer, a besieged district on the outskirts of the central city of Homs, recently debated whether to board the buses in the latest evacuation offer.

Al Telawi was experiencing a certain deja vu. Two years ago, he took a green bus with fellow fighters out of the Old City of Homs in a deal with the government, only to face another siege in Waer. “We have a phobia — a ‘bus complex’,” he said. “In our minds, they equal displacement.”

The Chinese-made buses first arrived in Syrian cities with much fanfare in 2009. Back then, they were a symbol of the modernisation promised by Al Assad. At one point painted red and plastered with the logo of a cellphone company owned by a cousin of the president, they replaced rickety repurposed school buses and supplemented the small white vans known as “servis”, providing improved, affordable public transportation for students and workers.

Osama Mohammad Ali, now an anti-government activist trapped in Waer, speaks wistfully of riding the bus to law school in Homs on rainy days alongside people from every sect and walk of life.

“The driver used to play Fairuz” — the Lebanese singer and diva — “and there was a kind of respect among us,” he said. “If I saw an elderly man standing, I would give him or her my seat.”

But when demonstrations demanding political reform broke out in 2011, the buses were used to transport camouflage-clad state security officers or gun-toting militiamen through Damascus traffic to beat up and arrest protesters.

As the uprising turned to armed conflict, clashes left burned-out buses rusting in the streets. The steel carcasses sometimes served as barriers between government and rebel territory.

Then, in a 2014 deal supervised by UN officials, the green buses evacuated the last rebels from the Old City district of Homs as the government took over the area.

“We were all crying, ‘Is this the end of Homs men?’” Al Telawi, the technician, recalled recently. “We thought we would be liberating Homs, but instead our end will be in the green bus.”

The buses have since been used again and again in the local surrender deals that the government has promoted in place of a national peace agreement.

The Syrian government and its ally Russia portray the evacuations as an act of mercy, freeing people they contend are being used as human shields. Opponents of the government increasingly see the process as “ethnic cleansing”, as it has primarily displaced members of the Sunni majority.

The United Nations has condemned the evacuations as a “forced displacement” of civilians, calling for residents to be allowed to “return voluntarily, in safety and in dignity.”

But as the stretched Syrian army continues to expel civilians from hard-to-control areas, the United Nations and other agencies operating in the country risk being implicated in “a dangerous precedent”, Aron Lund, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote recently. Armed groups, he continued, can “target and deport civilians with impunity in Syria, and perhaps elsewhere.”

When rebel-held towns refuse the deals, bombardments intensify and sieges tighten. In August, south of Damascus, the last 1,500 people in Daraya capitulated after an incendiary bombing of their last hospital. Some went to government-held suburbs, others to rebel-held Idlib province.

Abu Adnan, 50, was one of the bus drivers. He took 20 fighters and their families to Idlib, where many of them had never been before. They wept as they crossed the checkpoint on their way out of Daraya.

“Even I started tearing up — the crying of men is so hard,” he recalled in an interview, asking to be identified only by his nickname to avoid repercussions for expressing sympathy. “I saw a gunman put some soil from Daraya in a plastic bag and smell it as if it was soil from paradise.”

The more than 320-kilometre drive took 30 hours, he said, with the bus stopping at many checkpoints. At some, the rebel passengers threatened to shoot if security forces clambered aboard. At others, the security men cheered for Al Assad while the passengers cheered for Daraya and revolution.

In September came evacuations from Waer, with hundreds departing for rebel-held territory farther north.
Ali, the law student, chose to remain under the blockade. “I can’t stand to see these buses now,” he said, but he noted that some people saw them as a means of rescue, to “take them from hell to start a new life,” perhaps fleeing to Turkey.

Next, buses — white this time — took rebels and some civilians from the Damascus suburb of Qudsaya, where remaining residents chanted their support for the government as security officials welcomed the town “back into the lap of the country.”

And on October 19, rebels and activists boarded green buses bound for Idlib from the Damascus suburb of Moadhamiyeh, where chemical attacks killed hundreds in 2013. Among them was a doctor named Muhannad, who helped collect evidence for the UN investigation into those attacks and who spoke on the condition that he be identified by only his first name, for safety.

He, his wife and their son were hoping to smuggle themselves to Austria, where the doctor once worked. Staying home was not an option: He was wanted by 16 security branches, on charges of treating wounded fighters.

“I’m inside Bus No M-09,” he said by phone. Asked about the atmosphere, he said, “One word: crying.”
More than 2,600 people died in Moadhamiyeh during the war, he said. “We will never have the chance to read the Fatiha over our people,” he added, referring to a prayer of mourning.

The green buses were also offered — or offered as a threat — on October 21 to people in the besieged rebel-held eastern sections of Aleppo, the ancient city split since 2012 between government and rebel territory.

After the government encircled the rebel side over the summer, a pro-government reporter, Shadi Helweh, taunted the rebels on state television. “I swear to God, the green buses will be here,” he said. “We will take selfies with those mercenaries while they leave like rats.”

People in eastern Aleppo have much to flee: government and Russian airstrikes on hospitals, apartment buildings and schools; dwindling supplies of food.

But the green buses idled. Virtually no one came out, though Russia had declared a unilateral halt to airstrikes and promoted evacuations.

The government and Russia accused rebels of blocking civilians from leaving. Rebels said no one should be evacuated unless humanitarian aid was also allowed in — and told residents that it was not safe to take the buses without international supervision. The United Nations called for a more comprehensive humanitarian pause — with aid deliveries and medical evacuations — but that did not come to pass.

It is hard to know how many residents of Aleppo and other trouble spots would leave if they had reliable safety guarantees. Many, including older residents, say they just want to stay in their homes.

Al Telawi, the technician who rode the green bus out of Homs in 2014 but refused to board again in Waer this year, remembered that when one of his friends had gotten on the bus, he had taken out an old ticket, stamped it with the self-service machine as if for a normal ride, and kept it.

“He said he’ll use it again,” Al Telawi recalled. “On the way back.”

Source – Gulf news