Drivers delighted as Damascus dismantles checkpoints


By Layal Abou Rahal

— 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 militants 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 colors 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.

Threat diminished

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

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

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 militants from Daesh (the so-called IS) 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 authorize 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. — AFP