6 Oct 2015

Syria: catching the bus to Islamic State’s capital

“You can bribe government soldiers if they give you trouble,” said the driver, “but not those guys from Daesh.”

Syria is fragmenting, with territory divided between the rebels including Islamic State, known as Daesh, and the government. Outsiders might imagine the lines impermeable, but Syrians have learnt to negotiate their way through multiple checkpoints as they pass through the frontlines that criss-cross the country.

This morning 10 buses parked at the side of the road in eastern Damascus filled up with people heading to Raqqa, capital of the self-styled Islamic State. Many were elderly. The rulers of IS don’t allow men of military age to leave Raqqa in case they’re going to join the Syrian army.

“Sometimes you can ask them for mercy,” said the driver. “Once I quoted the Koran at them. But if you have a young man of army age in your bus or someone they think is a spy there’s nothing you can do. They take them off the bus, beat them and send them back to Raqqa.”

Leaving Raqqa isn’t easy. Mostly people are only allowed to go if a doctor gives them a certificate saying they need treatment in Damascus.

“First we have to fill out an application from the Daesh office, and only when they give agreement can we go,” said an old man. “If there’s a woman she needs to be accompanied by a “muharram”, a male relative. If she doesn’t have one, she can’t leave.

The “muharram” must be a father, brother, husband or son.

“I’ve had women taken off my bus because they don’t have a ‘muharram,’ said the driver. “They’re taken back to Raqqa where their male relatives are punished.”

When the bus leaves Raqqa, all the women are wearing gloves and burkas, covering everything even their eyes. As they cross into government territory they can relax, and let their hands and faces show.

An elderly woman with pale bedouin tattoos on her face told me that she had a medical certificate but her real reason for travelling to Damascus was to get her pension. IS say money from the government is irreligious. The Syrian government still pays salaries, even to civil servants in IS-held territory, so working age men are rarely permitted to come in case they’re collecting their pay.

The journey can take up to 18 hours depending on the road blocks. I watched a driverĀ  going through the luggage – if anyone’s found to have secreted a carton of cigarettes he may be given 40 lashes or gaoled for 15 days, and the driver may also be blamed. (Men suffer the same punishment if they don’t have a beard.)

As we left the bus stop, I spotted two young women dressed like most students in Damascus – tight jeans, a tunic to their thighs, a coloured headscarf. They were kissing goodbye to their parents, an elderly couple heading back to Raqqa. I doubt the young women will go home as long as IS is in power, imposing its bizarre, draconian laws.

Syria is breaking up into ethnic and religious enclaves: Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish. Each group has its foreign backers – Saudi, Russian, American. But every day, as they get on the bus, Syrians are trying to resist the divisions imposed by war.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum