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Syria’s eastern city of Deir Ezzor is effectively a divided city, split between government and opposition-held areas.
The rebels briefly gained an upper hand when they captured the Siyasiyeh Bridge in late January, effectively cutting off regime supplies to the adjoining province of Hasakeh. But the price tag was a heavy one.
Snipers and rocket launchers constantly target the bridge, and many who try to navigate the dangerous path are killed before reaching the opposite embankment. One can only venture to cross at the darkest hour of the night. On moonlit nights, rebel brigades prevent civilians from crossing, as any wrong move could lead to injury, or even death.
Our taxi driver Abu Abdullah, in his 40s, says a sniper has been shooting at the bridge all day. “More than five cars have tried crossing the bridge today,” he says, “and each one was hit. Even some passengers fell into the water.”
I ask if they can be rescued. Abu Abdullah replies that there is not much that can be done. But they have no choice. As Abu Abdullah explains: “This bridge is the last entry point to the city after the suspension bridge was destroyed.”
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Deir Ezzor’s historic pedestrian suspension bridge, dating back to 1927 and once a major attraction for visitors, was pummeled into the river by regime shelling in May. Even bridges connecting neighborhoods within the city have been destroyed by similar bombardments.
The “death bridge” was also heavily damaged, but the rebels built a small wooden extension to span the remaining distance. At that point, the journey on foot begins.
One fighter walks up to Abu Abdullah to say we can now cross the bridge. He checks that we have all our lights off, then signals us to move forward. Abu Abdullah utters the shahada (the Muslim profession of faith) before driving at an insane speed across the bridge. He doesn’t pay attention to the potholes left by rockets. A few minutes would be enough to send us all to our graves, but we miraculously survive.
We reach a wooded area where Abu Abdullah asks us to get out before parking his taxi among the trees. He joins us as we walk over the wooden bridge, which is crowded with young people working to transport goods into the city. We stop to speak to one of Abu Abdullah’s relatives, and I overhear 21-year-old Sufian talking about work. They hadn’t had work in three days since the bridge was blocked due to shelling and because flour was being transported into the city.
“Now we’re back to work,” he says. “A few of the guys got hit today, but we continue doing what we do,” adding that he was targeted by a rocket but the fridge he was carrying on his back protected him from the flying shrapnel.
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“Only four guys were injured lightly because the mortar fell far from us. Those targeting us don’t even know how to use a rocket launcher. Some mortars fell in the water, others fell far off or at the edges of the bridge,” he says mockingly.
We leave Sufian at the bridge and continue our journey. As we enter the destroyed Houeika neighborhood, we see the Bilal mosque, which now lies in ruins. The city is silent and lifeless, in spite of the many people who still reside here.
We get to Sheikh Yaseen neighborhood, which is our final destination. We ask Abu Abdullah to join us, and as we sit in a building whose top floor has been destroyed, I ask him why he chose to take up such dangerous work.
“I can’t work anywhere else,” he says. “There isn’t work but at the bridge. I work so I can feed my three children. I used to have a chicken shop. Now there’s no more chicken or any work to do other than transport people. I do it at night, and I get to make two rounds as allowed by the fighters. I start work at 2:00 a.m. and the last chance to come back is just before 4:00 a.m. In these two hours we help move aid and food to the people in the city. The problem is only one car can be on the bridge at any given time. Two cars going in opposite directions is forbidden, so as to minimize casualties.
“There are many more like me, who work in transporting the belongings of people who have left the city and who have taken up shelter in the rural areas. They have to carry all that stuff over the wooden bridge, which makes them more vulnerable than us taxi drivers. They are constantly hit by shrapnel. They move slowly and that makes them easier targets. Today, we don’t have any source of income other than transporting people across the notorious death bridge,” Abu Abdullah says.
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He goes quiet for a moment, and then says, “I wish I could go to the stadium to watch a soccer game. This saddens me even more than my life-threatening job. Since I was a child, I used to skip school to watch the Al-Futuah team’s matches. I know all the players, and I memorized all the chants. I remember all their goals and games; I even know the referees who have been unjust to us.” He adds, “Despite all our losses, the worst is losing those cherished moments. I would drop everything just to be able to go watch a match.”
Abu Abdullah wistfully remembers his long lost hope for his team: entry into the Syrian Premier League and the chance to compete at the West Asia Football Championship. His mood turns sour when the memories fade into the agonizing reality of the present.
“I could say we should go back to the way things were, but that’s impossible because the regime is deceitful. The regime forced us to carry arms and prolong this conflict,” he says.
The father of three is painfully conscious of the daily dangers of his work and senselessness of his situation.
“I know exactly what is happening now: we are risking our lives to cross a bridge for a bit of money, a part of which will go to the fighters … but the important thing is to put bread on the table for my family.”
This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.