Tuesday, November 08, 2016

 When a Choice is No Choice in Syria

"Even I started tearing up -- the crying of men is so hard."
"I saw a gunman put some soil from Daraya in a plastic bag and smell it as if it was soil from paradise."
Abu Adnan, 50, green bus driver, Syria

"The green buses will be here. We will take selfies with those mercenaries while they leave like rats."
Shadi Helweh, pro-government reporter

"Damn the green buses, I'm seeing them in my dreams."
"We have a phobia [in the Old City of Homs] -- a 'bus complex'. In our minds, they equal displacement."
Jalal al-Telawi, 36, computer technician, Homs
A bus carrying rebels and members of their families from the besieged Syrian district of Waer, on the outskirts of Homs, in September. Credit Youssef Badawi/European Pressphoto Agency

In North America the school buses are painted yellow, they are used to transport children to primary and secondary schools in rural areas and urban areas alike. They are trusted by society with the most precious cargo any society can have, their children, the future generation. Especial care is taken on roads to ensure that traffic stops when school buses do, to take on or unload their charges, to make certain that children do not suffer from the excruciating effects of being a victim of an accident. It is illegal for another vehicle on the road to proceed if a yellow school bus flashers are on, children debarking.

When Syria's government was modernizing six years ago, it bought new school buses to replace the rickety old unreliable rustbuckets used to ferry schoolchildren to and from school. A proud new innovation, to keep children safe and secure and deliver them where they needed to be to become educated to take their rightful place in society. Now, Syrian Sunni children find that their rightful place in Syrian society is far away from Damascus and from Syria's largest city, once its economic engine, Aleppo. They are being deported along with their civilian parents.

This where the green buses now appear, no longer transporting schoolchildren, but taking on desperately needy and hungry Sunni Syrians who have long been under siege and in need of medical care and decent food and potable water, items that the Shiite Syrian portion of Aleppo and Damascus have no shortage of whatever. Now those green buses are seen everywhere, evacuating civilians and rebel fighters alike who can no longer withstand the aerial battering of bombs and artillery destroying homes and hopes alike.

The 250,000 people left in rebel-held areas of Aleppo were given the opportunity to choose; the pamphlet distributed offering them the choice of disposition was emphasized with a photograph of a bloody body, characterized as the choice of "doom", while the choice of "redemption" showcased the photograph of a green bus. The choice was theirs; to be bused to government territory where they know they may be subject to arrest and conscription. Alternately to be bused to another rebel-held area where they can be assured of ongoing airstrikes courtesy of Syrian or Russian warplanes.

The choice does not enthrall the residents, neither civilian families nor the still-armed but fatigued rebel fighters, clutching their weapons, heading hollow-eyed to debarkation from Aleppo, the city they swore they would never leave. Pro-government websites and videos shown on state television entertain the other half of Aleppo and Damascus with scenes of women and children peering from the windows of buses, crying or staring absently into space, leaving the very symbol of revolt and hopes for the future.

The Damascus suburb of Daraya suffered the very same fate, emptied of Sunni civilians and the rebels among them. Since the political demonstrations demanding reform were initiated in 2011, camouflage-suited state security officers or armed militiamen were ferried by green buses through Damascus, beating up and arresting protesters. They're a dreaded, familiar sight, far from their original purpose of taking Syrian children to and from school on a daily basis.

The evacuations have been named a "forced displacement" of civilians by the United Nations. Residents, it insists should be permitted to "return voluntarily, in safety and in dignity", which must most certainly cause Syrian President Bashar al-Assad no sleepless nights, but much amusement. Should rebel-held towns under siege and with the prospect of green buses arriving to evacuate the residents, refuse the offer, they come under more intense bombardments and tightened sieges.

A man in Aleppo
A man reacts on the rubble of damaged buildings after losing relatives to an airstrike in the besieged rebel-held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 11, 2016.   REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
From eastern Aleppo very few have taken up the offer to be taken elsewhere, despite the derision of Shadi Helweh taunting the rebels on state television. Despite the airstrikes being halted by Russia which promoted evacuations, there were few to take up the offer leading both Russia and the regime to accuse rebels of having blocked civilians from leaving. It was the position of the rebels that humanitarian aid should be permitted to enter; advising residents at the same that their safety could not be assured without international supervision on the buses.

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