Marwa and Zahra climb onto the minibus, which is supposed to take them from Hameesh bus stop to Al-Salam Mosque within Barzeh district, east of Damascus. Awaiting the bus to fill with passengers before continuing on its way, Zahra becomes restless. She occupies herself by watching the women getting on the bus and arranging the items and supplies they carry.
Marwa chuckles as she looks at Zahra from the corner of her eye, gesturing at the woman sitting next to her. This woman is trying hard to conceal a large bag of raw chicken under the seat. She stops, and then looks at Zahra as if she just made a momentous discovery: “How about we split the chicken? I’ll keep half and you take half, so you say it is yours in case the soldier at the checkpoint asks.” Marwa and Zahra laugh and continue to watch women without bothering themselves to reply. This is almost a daily occurrence on their trips from the regime-controlled Damascus to Free-Army-controlled Damascus. Zahra calls this vehicle “Space Machine” rather than Time Machine.
The minibus is full and starts its long, albeit short, journey. The distance between the two stops is no more than 200 meters, but it may take more than half an hour to cross, depending on the traffic and the inclinations of soldiers at the checkpoint to search and inspect. Some women start reading Al-Mu’awwidhat [short Quranic prayers known as “verses of refuge”] before blowing breath at the checkpoint as it approaches. Upon arriving, a stunned silence prevails and everyone frowns. The woman with the raw chicken gets nervous and her lips begin to mutter quick prayers.
One of the soldiers at the checkpoint opens the bus door and gives the passengers sullen looks. “What are you carrying?” he asks generally, with no particular person. All the women start justifying their packages and defending themselves. “I only have a bag of bread and one kilogram of tomatoes, sir.” “These are diapers and medicine for my daughter; she’s ill.” “One kilogram of rice and a small bottle of oil.” The soldier stares at the women. He does not want to search the bus, so he slams the door and signals to the driver to continue on his way. The women give a sigh of relief. The one with the raw chicken mutters prayers of thanks and praise because she was not discovered, and she can now sell her chicken in Barzeh or in the adjacent Tishreen district, earn a few hundred Syrian pounds, and then begin this journey anew in order to make her living.
Barzeh district is located northeast of the Syrian capital, and it stretches over a large area, bordering the fringes of Rukn Al-Deen district to the west, the districts of Qaboun and Tishreen to the east, Al-Tall town to the north, and Harasta and Assad Suburb to the northeast. Its modern neighborhoods, such as Masakin Barzeh, Barzeh Musbak al-Sunu’ and Hanbali, contain multi-story buildings, and are closer to the city center. Conversely, the neighborhoods that are the farthest from Damascus downtown, such as Barzeh al-Balad and Barzeh Orchards, are still composed of classical Damascene houses –some are made from wood and adobe– and are characterized by the density of its olive, apricot, fig and pomegranate trees. These traditional neighborhoods are the ones that hosted the demonstrations against Assad’s rule as the Syrian revolution sparked in March 2011.
Barzeh district has attained distinction for the high cultural and organizational level that characterized its peaceful protest movement, which was reflected in its demonstrations and banners and many accompanying activities. As was the case in all of the areas which revolted against the Syrian regime, this district has had its share of detention that befell its finest youths in 2011. Additionally, Barzeh’s peaceful movement was met by all kinds of repression by the regime and its security and military forces, which led its residents to form their first Free Army vanguards.
As violence and confrontations escalated, the Syrian regime launched many fierce military campaigns against the district. These included bombardment with aircrafts and various weapons during the years of 2012 and 2013, and resulted in the devastation of its infrastructure and the displacement of most of its residents. These years also witnessed a siege imposed by the regime on the remaining residents inside the entire area that was out of its control, which included Barzeh, Qaboun, Tishreen and western Harasta. At the end of 2013, signs of a truce between the warring parties began to loom, and Barzeh ceasefire agreement was officially reached in the beginning of 2014. It remains in effect until this day, some violations by both sides notwithstanding.
In January 2014, the truce started with a cautious pace. Both parties implemented but a few of its terms, such as the ceasefire, desisting from advancing towards the opposite party’s territory, and agreement to remain within the districts each party controls. The regime’s control ends at Hameesh checkpoint and western Barzeh, from which point the Free Army’s control starts, stretching from Al-Salam Mosque to Barzeh al-Balad and Barzeh Orchards, down to Qaboun and Tishreen districts that are also held by opposition forces. Along Tishreen Hospital road, facing a building called “Educational Aids,” a shared checkpoint between the regime forces and the Free Army forces was erected.
Both parties sought to open the roads, cease sniping operations and allow civilians to move freely, as well as allow the entry of foodstuffs and other supplies. However, until this day, the regime has not fulfilled a term pertaining to the release of detainees. It has only released a handful of them, while hundreds of young men and women from Barzeh are still detained or forcibly disappeared with no information about their whereabouts. Moreover, the truce agreement has not stopped the regime from continuing to arrest some of the district’s citizens at its checkpoints, which are spread across the capital.
The area started receiving more civilians day after day, as it grew safer following the truce in Barzeh and western Harasta, in addition to the unofficial ceasefire in Qaboun, both of which led to a significant decline in the frequency of bombing and combat operations. Despite the destruction, thousands of families returned to their homes, driven by high rents inside Damascus. “A destroyed house is better than a rented one,” they say. Other families from Eastern Ghouta escaped violent, almost daily bombings and moved to live in this area, which is free from both death and detention. Thus, opposition-controlled Barzeh has transformed into one of the most densely populated areas of greater Damascus, with some dubbing it “The Free Zone” – alluding to the new trade regime that prevailed in it.
Supplies in small quantities began entering the area as the truce came into effect in January 2014. Stores slowly filled with different kinds of goods and supplies. Over the next few months, the Hameesh checkpoint has turned into one of the most important trading crossing points. It consisted of two consecutive checkpoints affiliated with two entities: The Political Security and the National Defense Forces. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian pounds worth of commodities have been passing through it every day, and millions of pounds have been paid at it as bribes, in exchange for allowing certain supplies, including, but not limited to, food items and medical equipment.
Due to the substantial and rapid increase of the population, traders benefit from the high demand for various supplies. Those in control of the checkpoints, additionally, wave the threat of siege and starvation to force their royalties upon people’s daily sustenance: “Either hunger and siege, or bribes.” This has reflected on the prices, which exceed those in any other Damascene district, the difference being the sum of the profits made by both traders and those in charge at the checkpoints.
Adnan, a media activist in Barzeh, explained how this trade regime has functioned: “With the beginning of the truce in Barzeh, the Hameesh checkpoint was merely a military one. It was responsible for ensuring the implementation of the truce terms, which include both the entry of food and intense inspection – lest opposition fighters enter or exit as they please, or smuggle weapons for the armed groups in the area. The function of this checkpoint, however, began changing six months after signing the truce, in mid-2014.”
At that period, the adjacent Eastern Ghouta was witnessing one of its most difficult times of siege. Since the end of 2013, the regime forces had blocked all the entrances and exits surrounding the Ghouta enclave, preventing any foodstuffs from entering and also restricting civilians from entering or leaving the area. As a result, most goods were absent from the markets in its towns, while meager amounts of certain food items, such as sugar, salt, flour or rice, were being sold for tens of thousands of Syrian pounds (tens of dollars).
This has reflected deeply on Barzeh, whose people felt the need of those in Ghouta for numerous food and medical supplies. They soon began to deliver, in many different ways, whatever they could deliver inside Ghouta, taking advantage of the abundance of supplies in their “Free Zone.” Infuriated, the regime was quick to reclose the road to Barzeh, in mid-2014, and to threaten its people again with war and siege. He accused them of “supporting the militants and terrorists of Eastern Ghouta,” which is one of the most invulnerable insurgent areas for the regime and its allies until this day.
According to Adnan, the regime’s intentions were not to reinstate the blockade over Barzeh and its adjacent neighborhoods, but rather to exploit their only route, the Hameesh checkpoint, for economic and even political proposes:
“The regime forces could not start a new battle while preoccupied with other battlefronts such as Jobar, Douma and others. Moreover, Barzeh truce has granted them moral and political support as it was frequently described as a successful example of national reconciliation. The regime therefore worked hard to maintain the truce, while making use of the daily passage of commodities into Barzeh, taking bribes for every single kilogram it allows in. Those were imposed onto the traders regardless of the size of their trade volumes, be them a few kilograms or hundreds of tons.”
These bribes and royalties the traders were forced to pay on a daily basis have led to exorbitant prices within the ceasefire area. For example, one kilogram of sugar, which is sold in Damascus for 400 Syrian pounds, is sold inside Barzeh at 600 pounds, whereby 100 to 150 pounds is paid to the checkpoint for each kilogram, plus the trader’s or the grocer’s own share, which could reach up to 50 pounds. Furthermore, that profit margin would increase in the Eastern Ghouta, in which the same materials are sold after adding new profits for other people within the extended trade cycle. It should be noted that, over time, this trade process has eventually reduced the prices within the besieged Ghouta while bringing some balance between supply and demand; prices in the siege-area were only slightly higher than those in the truce-area.
As a result of this cycle, many have preferred to purchase their necessities themselves, crossing the Hameesh checkpoint into Damascus where they can obtain what they need from the capital at less cost. Regime checkpoints, however, happen to arrest young men arbitrarily everyday, transferring them either to jails or to battlefronts under their “mandatory” or “reserve” military service, in addition to those wanted detained for having involved in anti-regime activities. Thus, since the beginning of 2015, it has become woman and children’s duty to buy the necessities from outside the area.
Zahra described what she calls one of the most unforgettable incidents during these five years: “Last August, the Hameesh checkpoint was restricted for vehicles, and entry and exit were only allowed on foot. It was one of the regime’s attempts to tighten the noose on the population. So a severe blockade began to the area, with foodstuffs disappearing from the stores. This forced hundreds of women to exit on foot towards Damascus to get basic necessities for their families, in a trip that used to take many hours under the scorching sun and unbearable heat. Each day, I used to see crowds walking along each other in one direction, either out of the area or into it. Every woman would go out empty-handed and return packed with whatever food, bread and medicine she managed to get. Elder women would rely on small pushcart to fill with their goods and push with effort, hoping only to reach their homes. Some mothers were accompanied by their kids, who try and assist them in carrying the supplies with whatever their small tender arms would manage to carry.”
In that period, a new type of trade emerged, as it was not limited to household necessities anymore. Poverty, unemployment, and the absence of breadwinners forced many women into a new profession: traversing this crossing to Damascus markets multiple times a day, buying what they can carry, then selling it to the traders inside the area with a slight profits, taking advantages of the leniency of the soldiers at the checkpoint at times, and their susceptibility to bribe at others.
Oday, an activist from Qaboun, talked about this new profession: “Dozens of women leave towards Damascus several times a day to buy materials that they later sell to the traders, who in turn sell them within the area or to Eastern Ghouta with large profits. This trade is no longer limited to food supplies, because even clothes have become part of this daily recurrent process. This led the regime soldiers to increase their restriction on everything entering the area. The know about the smuggling of commodities to the besieged Eastern Ghouta, which the regime considers the most dangerous “terrorist” stronghold. Lately, it has not been easy, even for women, to smuggle in more than a few kilograms. They have been even subject to beatings or insults at the Hameesh checkpoint. Still, many resort to bribing the soldiers to be allowed to bring in larger quantities. On the other hand, traders might have to pay obscene costs of up to 200,000 Syrian pounds to bring in large quantities, most of which go to Eastern Ghouta. Significantly, some materials such as gas, fuel, chloride, and citric acid are among the most strongly prohibited to enter the area; the regime fears that these materials could be used to make explosives and other bombs and weapons that may be used against its forces.”
In the same context, Zahra reports more incidents she has witnessed at Hameesh checkpoint: “With the spread of women traders, most of whom have become known to the soldiers at the checkpoint, the inspection process has evolved, as every bus has to enter what is known as ‘The Square.” All passengers are forced to descend from the bus into a small square, and then the bus is thoroughly inspected, in addition to all of the women’s bags and purses. Only small quantities are allowed to pass, and whoever carries more than three or four kilograms has to either go back or bribe the soldier responsible of searching her bus. Many women try to enter on foot along with their children, in hope that they avoid the bus inspection. Some could be unfortunate enough to enrage the soldiers and receive beating with sticks, as well as insults and abuses. That still does not mean that she cannot pass, as paying a thousand pounds may be their key to reach Barzeh.”
Khaled, another activist from Qaboun, provides more information. The young man who works in a civil society organization confirms that the Hameesh checkpoint receives millions of Syrian pounds as bribes in exchange for allowing in non-food commodities. “Sometimes, millions of pounds are paid to let in cargos of medicines, cloth and others. Large traders have a deal with the checkpoint officers, whereby these amounts are paid in exchange for facilitating entry into the opposition-controlled area. At other times, the deal stipulates paying an obscene amount that can reach 7 million Syrian pounds ($14,000) in exchange for “buying off” the checkpoint for an entire day, during any kind of item is allowed in regardless of quantity. These can then be sold in the markets of Barzeh or Eastern Ghouta.”
The residents of Barzeh and its surroundings are still unsure if the truce, which has been in effect for more than two and a half years, is a blessing or a curse. There is no purpose in war as long as no party can win it. However, the transformation of their area into the only passage exploited for trade and profit has most certainly been a curse. Aside from the high prices, the officers at the checkpoint often decide on a whim to close the passage and prevent entry and exit for hours, or sometimes for days, which is long enough to put tens of thousands of people under the threat of famine and siege.
For example, Adnan mentioned many disputes between the heads of security branches who want to control the said checkpoint. One of these disputes, which occurred in the beginning of 2016, led to its closure and total besiegement of the area for several weeks. This resulted in changes in the map of territorial control, as the road between Damascus and Barzeh was handed to the Republican Guard, while the Political Security assumed control over the road from Barzeh to the capital.
Even so, none of the locals dare to even ponder the possibility of a return of war to their nearly demolished neighborhoods; because fleeting thoughts might turn into reality. Even when it becomes a business, truce is still less costly than facing the daily bombardment of the regime’s aircrafts, tanks, and artillery.