Tag: tourism

The prison bus

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.

World Cup war

A cacophony of gun fire and cries for help, screaming voices of Americans and Brits, pleading “Save us, save us”. I opened my eyes and saw the rotating fan, top-lit by a dim bulb, the smell was Arabic, a balcony shimmered in the distance, sweating and shaking I sat up, it was like the opening scene in ‘Apocalypse Now’. But all was calm, moments later I realised I must have fallen asleep with the telly on. A news item about western hostages being killed in Iraq had woken me, a graphic re-construction had thrust me back to Iraq for a nightmarish moment, but here I am again waking in peaceful Syria.

Peaceful? well so it seems most of the time, as I push my way though the thousands of tourists in the old city of Damascus. Tourism is big business, despite the world-wide recession tourism is up 12% in Syria making it a billion dollar industry. The last thing Syria needs now is a war, but the more international news I read from the region the more it looks like it, the papers predict a war between Israel and Lebanon where this time Syria will get involved. In the past Syria has sat on the sidelines fuelling and funding (along with Iran) Hezbollah – the freedom fighters of south Lebanon. As I wander through the old city posters of Hezbollah leader are clear to be seen everywhere, their support it seems comes from the people as well as the government.

But how likely is it to happen? Bashar al-Assad the Syrian president said in a recent interview here that if there is a 1% possibility of averting a war he will find it. But other reports say that bigger and more sophisticated weapons have already been sent to Lebanon from Syria in preparation for any fighting.

The blockade of Gaza, the Israeli attack on the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ aid ship and the killing of nine volunteers has raised tensions in the region and now new fears of a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear plants next year puts war high on the news agenda. Not that it seems to bother the tourists here in bustling Damascus, in the hot sweaty souks where old men play backgammon whilst sipping on tiny cups of Arabic coffee, a bigger news story has won the hearts and minds of locals and tourists alike… the World Cup in South Africa!