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On the road to Damascus: Thirsty guards, bribes and menace

September 23, 2012 | 11:59 am

A Times special correspondent recently traveled via car between Beirut and Damascus, Syria. This is her account of the trip. She has not been identified for safety's sake.

DAMASCUS -- The road to Damascus from the Lebanese border, a distance of about 50 miles, featured six checkpoints, sometimes only a few minutes' drive apart. There are scores of additional checkpoints within the city limits of the Syrian capital.

The behavior of checkpoint personnel ranges from nonchalant to sinister. Thirsty guards regularly solicit bottles of cold water from drivers. Some take small bribes to allow produce to pass through.

The guards, typically young conscripts in uniform, follow a familiar drill: They check ID and ask drivers to open trunks for cursory looks.

At one checkpoint, my driver, a gregarious sort with a wry sense of humor, was chuckling after opening the trunk. “They’re in the next car over,” he informed the smiling conscript.

The guard had asked, half jokingly: “Where are the weapons?”

The question is not always put in jest. Lebanon is a major source of smuggled arms destined for Syrian rebels.

Facebook and Twitter are rife with incidents in which men and sometimes women are taken away at
checkpoints, never to be heard of again.

With monthly salaries equivalent to about $12, some of the checkpoint troops look haggard and wretched.

“Can I have the water?” one of them asked the driver, thrusting his head through the car window.

We gave him a bottle from our cooler before he let us pass. He chugged away.

Another driver handed the guard a fistful of roasted sunflower seeds, a popular snack.

At almost every checkpoint, drivers of pickup trucks ferrying boxes of fruit, livestock or other merchandise back to Damascus paid off guards in a bid to skip inspection. They slipped notes of 100 or 200 Syrian pounds — the equivalent of a few dollars at most — into the receptive hands.

The final checkpoint before Damascus proper was the most serious, and frightening. There is speculation that the strategic site is under the authority of the 4th Brigade, the infamous unit associated with President Bashar Assad's younger brother Maher. The handful of guards here were dressed in plainclothes. Kalashnikov rifles hung from their shoulders. Their faces looked tense, their gazes intimidating.

They fit the stereotypical description of shabiha, the government’s thuggish enforcer corps.

They inspected my purse and asked to see my ID, something security men at previous checkpoints had not done.

“What’s in the cooler?” an especially menacing guard asked.

“It’s empty,” the driver said, opening it to prove the point. The guard looked disappointed. Apparently, he too was in need of a cool drink.

“Next time,” he warned, “fill it up with chilled bottles of water.”

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