Taxi drivers dodge snipers in battle to survive in Syria's civil war
Scores of taxi drivers in Aleppo risk their lives every day to ferry passengers and feed their families in Syria's vicious civil war
Agence France-Presse in Aleppo
Taxi driver Abu Mohammed cheated death when a sniper opened fire. The bullet whistled past his right temple.
Instead of him, it hit his female customer on the back seat of his yellow cab.
Like scores of drivers in Aleppo, Mohammed risks his life every day to ferry passengers across the front lines of Syria's vicious civil war, battling to stay alive and feed their families.
"I was coming back across al-Ramousa bridge when the sniper shot at me. The bullet whizzed straight past my face," he says, miming with his hand the trajectory of the bullet racing centimetres from his head.
"It wounded my sister-in-law in the arm. After that, the sniper fired another three or four bullets. I didn't stop for another three or four kilometres, then when I did, I made a tourniquet for her arm," he says.
That was two weeks ago. Now his wife worries every time he leaves their small flat, praying to God that he will return safe and sound at the end of his shift.
A fellow taxi driver, the son of a friend, has already been killed. Bullet holes and shattered windscreens are not uncommon to see on Aleppo taxis.
"I am afraid and I take a lot more care now," says Mohammed, who at 52 is a grandfather six times over and still has a 14-year-old son living at home.
But it's not just snipers he has to worry about. Fuel prices have doubled since the conflict began and he's convinced that marketeers dilute it with water. He says he takes home half the money he used to.
Then there is the problem of navigating checkpoints, where rebels and regime agents flag down vehicles looking for spies.
For those who live in rebel-held areas, dealing with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the plethora of other armed groups is straightforward. It's the questions and the checks they endure at the hands of the government that worry them.
"In the FSA areas, they say as-salaam aleikoum [peace be upon you] and can I see your ID. He looks at it and then says you can go," says another taxi driver, Abu Mahmoud, also 52.
"But in the areas under regime control, they ask, 'Where are you going, where have you come from?' and search the boot and everything in the car. Then they search and check the passengers. Some of them have been arrested."
He fears the snipers, shelling and the planes, panicking about where they will drop their deadly payloads.
But he is also frightened for his two sons doing their national service for President Bashar al-Assad's army, which has refused to de-enlist the eldest.
"I'm scared for my sons. I live in a liberated area and they're in Damascus. I'm afraid because the army doesn't let them come on leave. One son has now been kept on a year and three months after his service finished," he said.
Families are divided across enemy lines. Many have abandoned homes held by the rebels for the relative safety behind government lines, where the opposition lacks the arsenal to cause major damage.
They take taxis to visit abandoned homes in shattered apartment blocks, check their possessions haven't been stolen and retrieve winter clothes. Mattresses are then strapped to the taxi roof and bags crammed into the boot.
As many as four women, heavily veiled, can be crammed into the back seat with assorted children; another child perched on the knee of a father in front.
Abu Mahmoud works from 7am to 4pm or 5 pm - basically until dusk which falls earlier now as winter sets in. He doesn't think it's safe to work at night.
"This is a good job for me. I've got six children and I earn up to 600 Syrian pounds (HK$65) a day. It's not enough. Life is very expensive but it's better than sitting around doing nothing," he said.