I find myself pushing my way through small groups Germans and Americans on tour around the ‘old city’ area of Damascus – foreigners, eyes and mouths wide-open, gobsmacked by wonderful this country is, how friendly it is, and how great the food is, and of course they are right, it is, but step a mile outside the old city (which of course they rarely do) and you see the reality for everyday Syrians living here in the ‘City of Jasmine’.
For the locals life can be very tough, considering the potential for tourism in a country with such a great cultural heritage, with few jobs and little prospects. Whilst at home there is often a lack of public utilities such as regular electricity and water supplies.
Crossing the road, and away from the tourists, I pass the Damascus Central Court to be confronted by a scene that looks like something from a 1950’s American movie. A small crowd had gathered and was pressed up to and staring eagerly through the iron gates, behind which were parked two buses filled with dishevelled men wearing stripy blue pyjama’s.
If I wasn’t in Syria I could describe the scene as being quite funny, but their sullen faces said otherwise. Old and young men alike were being moved from one bus into another, some were “lucky” enough to find seats, the rest were pushed-in until the bus was completely full, with no standing space left. As soon as the doors were shut the bus started to leave, making its way slowly out of the court gates. I gazed around to watch the onlookers straining to see the occupants of the slowly moving jam-packed bus. This whole area was also filled with local and secret police, but they made no attempt to move the watching crowd back and away, this spectacle was seemingly a public example to the people that this is where they will also find themselves if they too cross the blurry red line.
I looked closer at the individual faces of the gathered onlookers, now I could see a great sadness in their eyes, one man close-by cried quietly. As the bus moved slowly in-front of us one of its occupants with his face squeezed hard against the window gave a sad pathetic wave to the man next to me, I realised that within the watching crowd were many relatives of these men, coming to see them for the last time before they are driven away to prison.
This was ‘a daily procedure’ I was told later by a friend. But those men’s faces told a thousand stories as they passed-by. Criminals, political and criminal I guess, but with such a harsh and difficult daily existence here for ordinary poor Syrians one is left to wonder what their crimes were and what really motivated them.