Drivers rejoice as Damascus dismantles checkpoints after years of war

Drivers rejoice as Damascus dismantles checkpoints after years of war

DAMASCUS - Agence France-Presse
Drivers rejoice as Damascus dismantles checkpoints after years of war

In his beloved yellow taxi, Abu Ayman zigzags through the streets of Syria’s capital Damascus, delighted that the security checkpoints that choked the streets for years have been removed.

With the capital declared under full government control earlier this year, authorities have dismantled at least 15 roadblocks along main thoroughfares, where they stopped and searched passing vehicles.

The barriers left some areas completely inaccessible to cars, while clogging up other streets with long lines of vehicles carrying fuming passengers.

But since Syria’s army announced in May it had ousted jihadists and rebels from the outskirts of Damascus, city authorities have started cutting back those measures.

Coming off a main highway into the capital’s famed Abbasid square, the remnants of a former checkpoint come into view: an empty stall painted with the colours of the Syrian flag, cement blocks pushed to the side of the street, and metal sheets perched nearby.

Metres away, a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad in a suit and tie overlooks the post.

Passing by the abandoned checkpoint in his Hyundai, Abu Ayman beams.

"I’m happy every time they remove a new checkpoint -- my customers breathe a sigh of relief and even my car relaxes," he tells AFP, dressed in a maroon-and-grey striped shirt.

At 62, Abu Ayman has spent nearly every day of the last 40 years driving through Damascus looking for customers.
"Moving around has gotten easier. Traffic has gone down and there are no more stop-and-searches," he says.

A year after Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, Damascus came under threat.

Car bombs and other attacks hit the city, often claimed by jihadists. Rebels based in the Eastern Ghouta suburb or in the city’s south regularly launched rockets and mortars into residential neighbourhoods.

To protect the city, security forces set up checkpoints to meticulously search vehicles entering Damascus or moving across its congested streets.

"Between the traffic and the search, we used to wait anywhere between 30 minutes to a full hour at each checkpoint in Damascus," says Abu Ayman.

"Many times, my customers would start fuming because of the traffic, so they’d pay me and just walk across the checkpoint on foot," he recalls.

Abu Ayman says his trunk is even damaged from being repeatedly slammed shut over the years after being searched at checkpoints.

"I fixed it four times then decided to just stop. Soldiers can open it now without me getting out," he jokes.

Soldiers were particularly tough on any cars coming from Ghouta or the southern edges of the capital, where jihadists from the Islamic State group were based.

But both those areas were retaken this spring in military operations and large-scale population transfer deals, paving the way for Damascus security officials to authorise the removal of the checkpoints.

That brought an economic windfall to the Al-Jed petrol station, one of the largest in Damascus.

Employees can be seen rushing from car to car, filling up tanks for an influx of customers the likes of which they have not seen in years.

In 2013 nearby checkpoints sealed off car access to the street where the petrol station is located, says its accountant Abdulrahim Awwad.

"Our sales dropped from more than 100,000 litres in 2013 per day to just 4,000," says Awwad.

But everything has changed in the last few weeks, with daily sales climbing "after all the roads leading to the station were reopened," Awwad, 60, tells AFP.

"Just two weeks ago, we turned all of the station’s eight pumps back on and our sales increased to 39,000 litres a day," he says, counting a stack of cash at his desk.

The newly unblocked roads have even revived traffic at the Al-Hal Souk, one of the most vibrant in Damascus.

A queue of cargo trucks, horns blaring, is parked near the market’s entrance as muscular workers unload cans of cooking oil and cleaning supplies.

"The checkpoint we see today is actually making it easier for us -- the soldier there searches us with a machine," says truck driver Abu Nur, 56.

"Until only recently, we sometimes had to unload all our cargo at checkpoints so it could all be searched, and we’d have to show receipts for the goods," he tells AFP.

The grinning driver trucks cleaning supplies into the Qalamun region northeast of Damascus two days a week, and drops goods off in coastal Syria the other three days.

"I used to cross 16 checkpoints and security posts just to get to Qalamun -- a trip that would take four hours," says Abu Nur.

"Today, I cross three checkpoints and get there in just an hour. Thank God."