“Seek knowledge, even if in China.”
This one example of many sayings that stress the importance of pursuing education, no matter the cost, that have become a ubiquitous part of our culture. The old adage tells people to continue their quest for knowledge, regardless of how long the journey is or how tiresome it becomes. Such a hyperbole has come to reflect the reality of many students in Syria today, whose travel between provinces in pursuit of education may be harder than traveling to the ends of the earth.
“I was destined to endure a daily trip of torment as a part of my college career,” Khaled, a young man from Hama, said as he described his near daily commute to university.
A student in the Faculty of Science at Homs University, Khaled entered college a year before the March 2011 uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime was born. He quickly joined the revolution and volunteered as a medic, providing first aid assistance and taking care of those who were wounded at anti-regime demonstrations, during raids of residential areas by regime forces, and during the clashes that still take place intermittently in the streets of Hama. For three years, Khaled has continued to provide medical assistance without being exposed to the regime’s security apparatus. Like many other Syrian youth, Khaled does everything in his power to avoid passing through regime checkpoints so that he does not put himself at risk of arrest.
“The torment begins as the bus departs toward Homs, because being a passenger on public transportation means that you don’t have the freedom to choose your route, nor are you capable of running away if a dangerous situation ever arises,” he said.
It is estimated that there are about 11 checkpoints en route Homs, each of which operates independently and represents a different security branch. Some of the checkpoints bear the flag of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, whose forces stand guard.
To make things more difficult, each of these checkpoints is located on a byroad that passes through several pro-regime village. Buses adopted this route to Homs at the end of the first year of the revolution, as clashes intensified in Rastan and Talbiseh, two towns that are located on the main highway between Hama and Homs. While it used to take about 20 minutes to get from one city to the other, travelers now spend about 2.5 hours waiting to get to their destination.
Buses and cars are stopped at each checkpoint, where security forces collect the personal ID cards of all passengers, searching for anyone who may be wanted by the regime. The forces also barbarically rummage through people’s belongings, sometimes stealing stuff, and while talking to passengers in a vile and demeaning manner.
“There is no feeling in the world like stopping at a checkpoint if you are a revolutionary activist, or even just opposed to the regime,” Khaled said.
“Your extremities get cold, your pupils dilate and your heart rate speeds up as you wait for your ID to be returned,” he added. “Your blood freezes and your life flashes before your eyes as you quickly check your phone and bag to make sure you haven’t forgotten something that could be incriminating. You imagine what arrest and torture would be like, and recite to yourself whatever prayers and supplications you have memorized. And then, a few minutes later, the soldier returns with your ID, and it is over.”
Khaled continued to describe the arduous process of being stopped at a checkpoint. “Once the soldier returns the IDs, he calls out the names of the unlucky people whose names are on the regime’s wanted list. Often times, people are arrested just because their names resemble the names of those who are wanted.”
The buses Khaled rides are designated for college students, which, according to the transportation company, make it easier to pass through checkpoints. Sometimes, the forces let school buses go through without stopping them or they search the buses before other vehicles in line in order to avoid delays.
When a regime force discovers that there is a passenger on the bus who is not a student, the passenger is subjected to physical and verbal abuse and is accused of trying to sneak through the checkpoint. There have been many reports of middle-aged and elderly men who either intentionally or accidentally boarded the student bus and endured such mistreatment.
While many students commute to Homs for school, others study at universities in other parts of the country. Motasem is a student at the Faculty of Law in Damascus, and he described his travel to Syria’s capital as a “horror movie.” Like Khaled, Motasem said the commute is a security risk and is even potentially fatal. On more than one occasion, the regime’s army or other, unidentified armed groups opened fire onto Motasem’s bus on the way to the university.
Once, as battles were intensifying in the Qalamoun area outside Damascus, a regime fighter jet launched an air strike near Motasem’s bus. Two female students died as a result of shrapnel injuries sustained in the attack, as there were no hospitals nearby.
Barbie Taleb, the coordinator for the Hama branch of the Union of Free Syrian Students, reiterated that students traveling between provinces are in constant danger. There have been many instances of financially-motivated kidnappings. The families of the kidnapped students are often exploited: they pay the agreed-upon ransom only to eventually discover that their children are being held without charge at a regime security branch.
“The most painful aspect is that we know nothing about the whereabouts of many kidnapped students,” Taleb concluded. “We don’t even know if they are dead or alive; their fate is unknown and their future is grim, just like the educational future of this country.”
- You can also read the Arabic version of that article on Jasem-Alhamwe blog:
Or read it on Orient-net website: