What it’s like on the bus trip from Beirut to the heart of ISIS

File photo of Syrian refugees inside a bus at the Lebanese border town of Arsal. (File photo: Reuters)

The dozen passengers inside the bus that will take them from Beirut to Raqqa, Syria, look somber before their departure.

It is 7pm, and a plain-clothed policeman is checking the documents and tickets of the travelers, all Syrians.

This is the first of tens of inspections that Lebanese and Syrian soldiers and militiamen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will carry out in a bus whose 50 seats are mostly empty.

It is the beginning of an odyssey that will last at least 20 hours, and will carry the occupants from the Mediterranean coast to the heart of ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

Due to clashes, the poor state of the roads and difficulties in ISIS areas, the travel time from Beirut to Raqqa has tripled from its original seven hours.  (Nicolas Lupo Sonnabend/ Al Arabiya)

Due to clashes, the poor state of the roads and difficulties in ISIS areas, the travel time from Beirut to Raqqa has tripled from its original seven hours. (Nicolas Lupo Sonnabend/ Al Arabiya)

Most are male workers aged between 20 and 50, who have lived in Lebanon for many years. Many came for work long before the start of the Syrian conflict.

They return to their homeland to visit relatives, and to bring them money and goods that are impossible to find there.

They return to their homeland to visit relatives, and to bring them money and goods that are impossible to find there. (Nicolas Lupo Sonnabend/ Al Arabiya)

They return to their homeland to visit relatives, and to bring them money and goods that are impossible to find there. (Nicolas Lupo Sonnabend/ Al Arabiya)

Ahmed is two hours away from entering Syria. He has not been there for over a year. “I’m going back home for a few weeks” before returning to Beirut, he says.

Ahmed would not stay in Raqqa, not because of the war or ISIS, but because “there’s no work.”

Living in Beirut, one of the costliest cities in the region, he saves most of his salary by sleeping at the construction sites where he works. “This money is essential for my family to survive.”

Ahmed does not seem concerned by the difficulties he may encounter on the trip to his hometown.

“I know there are many controls on the road, but with a valid Syrian passport and Lebanese visa, there should be no problems.”

There are many army checkpoints in government-held areas, “I’ve heard sometimes one every kilometer,” says Ahmed.

Routes

Due to clashes, the poor state of the roads and difficulties in ISIS areas, the travel time from Beirut to Raqqa has tripled from its original seven hours.

However, if clashes along the route worsen, “the trip can take up to 30 or 40 hours,” says Ghassan, a Syrian in charge of selling tickets at the station.

Buses to Raqqa leave from Charles Helou station every other day, and vans do the same route the rest of the week. (Nicolas Lupo Sonnabend/ Al Arabiya)

Buses to Raqqa leave from Charles Helou station every other day, and vans do the same route the rest of the week. (Nicolas Lupo Sonnabend/ Al Arabiya)

Buses to Raqqa leave from Charles Helou station every other day, and vans do the same route the rest of the week.

The city, the only capital of a Syrian province in ISIS hands, is not the only stop inside the self-proclaimed caliphate.

ISIS controls vast territory in north-west Syria, and depending on the destination, vehicles use two main routes. However, violence can change route plans, and many now fear heavy Russian airstrikes.

Mohammad - not his real name - says the driver has told him that the passage from territory controlled by the Syrian army to that controlled by ISIS usually happens without difficulty. “He told me that if there’s fighting, we’ll wait for it to finish.”

Mohammad paid the usual 15,000 Syrian liras - around $50 on the black market - for a ticket to Manbij, a town between Aleppo and Raqqa under ISIS control.

Nineteen months have passed since he last hugged his two daughters, both in their late twenties. They cannot leave their home if they are not accompanied by a male guardian.

Hazards

Abu Hashij, the driver of the bus, says many times “military and militiamen steal money or belongings from the passengers.”

Syrian army soldiers tend to benefit the most, he says, since areas under their control are the first the bus crosses once in Syria. ISIS militias also benefit, however, despite having only “one or two” checkpoints.

Abu Hashij pulls out a small tube of cologne. “When we get close to ISIS areas, I rub it on my fingers to erase the smell of tobacco,” because if ISIS militants find out he has been smoking, they will flog his back with a whip.

He also sprays the bus with air-freshener. ISIS has imposed a smoking ban in its territory, based on a strict interpretation of Islam.

Male passengers have to cover their legs down to the ankle. Female passengers are rare, but they bring a niqab to fully cover their body and face, says Abu Hashij.

All the passengers will return to Beirut except one, an old man with a traditional red and white keffiyeh on his head, who is willing to stay in Raqqa with his family.
 

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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