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Life on Syria's front line: taxi driving in Aleppo

A child waves from a taxi, as he flees with his family after heavy shelling in Aleppo's district of Al-Zebdieh, August 26, 2012. ( REUTERS/Zain Karam)

ALEPPO: Taxi driver Majdi, well-built and bearded, may appear fearless as he negotiates the lines that have divided Aleppo since rebels seized several city districts in the summer, but he has serious concerns.

The divisions are clear from the moment of arrival at the embattled northern city's international airport, a loyalist enclave surrounded by rebel-held areas.

An aircraft makes an immediate 80-degree bank as it takes off, to avoid being targeted by rebel fighters holed up in nearby olive groves.

To get to the army-held Saadallah al-Jabri Square in the heart of the country's commercial capital, Majdi must first cross three eastern districts in the hands of opponents of President Bashar Assad's regime.

In Maysar, Tareq al-Bab and Sakhur, the rebels have set up checkpoints using sandbags and the independence flags adopted by supporters of revolt against the regime.

The fighters stop and search cars and often demand to see drivers' ID cards.

"Driving through the rebel checkpoints is a real lottery," says 38-year-old Majdi, who has all too quickly learned to cope with the new reality. "The key is to look straight ahead. If they catch you looking at them, they get suspicious."

He has good reason to be concerned: a taxi driver was reported killed by a sniper in the Bab al-Nasser area of Aleppo on Thursday. It was not immediately known who targeted him.

On July 20, while battles raged across the southern belt of Damascus, rebel forces launched an attack against Syria's commercial hub, which is home to 2.7 million residents.

They quickly seized several districts on the edges and near the centre of Aleppo, meeting only weak resistance from regime forces.

The army later reclaimed the emblematic district of Salaheddin and part of Saif al-Dawla -- both scenes of violent clashes -- as well as the Christian neighborhood of Jdeideh in the central Old City.

Since then, Aleppo's front lines have entered a state of stagnant attrition.

"Both sides know us drivers and they let us work," Majdi tells an AFP journalist who is surprised by how closely Aleppo has come to resemble Beirut during neighboring Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

"Otherwise, the city would be totally paralysed."

But 45-year-old Abdo does not want to take the same risks as Majdi, and drives only in regime-held neighborhoods.

"In Aleppo, you've got regime forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army, but the largest group is an army of thieves roaming the city," Abdo says.

"Bandits have set up roadblocks. They say they're rebel fighters but then steal your car, and that's my only way to make a living. They demand 250,000 Syrian pounds (around $3,500) or you don't get the car back.

"This has happened to dozens of my colleagues, and when it's your money they're after, they have no compassion."

For six weeks since the rebel offensive began, Aleppo has led a double life. "That's why I try and choose my passengers well," says Abdo. "Though I make less money, at least I'm safe."

In the city centre, despite the sound of bombardment, some of it especially fierce, shops are open and ice cream stores are full, even after midnight, both in the Christian district of Aziziyeh and the Muslim neighborhood of Mogambo.

But these areas have also suffered change, as a large number of Aleppo residents have fled the city for safety in Beirut, Cairo or elsewhere, and have yet to return.

By contrast, many outer districts and large swathes of the Old City are under rebel control. In these areas, violence and shortages force remaining residents to shelter at home as soon as night falls.

A bullet shot by a sniper has drilled through the door of 28-year-old Ahmed's yellow taxi. He narrowly escaped death, he says, just as he was crossing a rebel-held bridge.

Immediately afterwards, he says, he came to an army checkpoint where loyalists accused him of working with the rebels.

They broke his ID card in a country where cracked identification papers land people in jail after a firebrand Saudi-based cleric who makes anti-Alawite speeches urged his followers to get rid of any documents issued by the regime.

In order to get a new ID card, Ahmed will now have to travel to Sfira, 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of Aleppo.

"I almost got killed by the rebels, and now I risk going to jail," he says. "On top of all that, I only make around $7 a day."

 

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