Syria Journal – The bleak desert highway

Tuesday May 7 2019, Palmyra, Syria

The shelling had been non-stop from sundown to sunrise. Despite global headlines announcing the looming defeat of ISIS, dozens of  soldiers have been killed in swift ISIS raids in the steppes surrounding Palmyra recently.

Luckily we only learnt this after our visit.

We left the traumatised but resilient world heritage site as the bite of the desert night thawed, skating down a brittle military road and crushing the brakes before each checkpoint.

We relax as we pass through a cluster of rudimentary rest stops. Large ‘Pullman’ coaches are parked irregularly as ragged young soldiers mill around, gripping long falafel sandwiches. They seem to be a 50/50 mix, some tense, some relieved.

Coffee and water in hand, we notice many of the soldiers drinking sugary vodka soft drinks that would make a British university student quiver. The fridges are stocked with Ukrainian beer and the shelves graced by Russian vodka.

It is the second day of Ramadan in Syria and those soldiers will be seeing their family again, the others have just left them for another tour on the front lines.

As we drive off, surprised at the relaxed attitudes to fasting in Syrian Ramadan, a colleague jests “some say this is what the war was fought for.”

By the next checkpoint, the monotony of the desert reaching to the foothills of the north has sedated me. A wiry perma-tanned officer with silver hair and a broad smile leans in, asking for our papers. Glancing at me in the back seat he drawls, “hawiatak ya khayeh…” (Your identification brother…?) baffled and chuffed at being mistaken for a local I crackle into laughter which infects the driver.

“laysh dahak ‘alay…?” (Why are you laughing at me?”) The officer scowls. Not skipping a beat, Tarek interjects “huwa Sa’im wa ta’aban” (he’s fasting and he’s tired sir!). “Aaah kwayis, kwayis” (Oh, good good) he says, spinning on his heels and waving us on, chuckling at the scene.

The day, and the year, is warming up, photography is still forbidden, but we are getting further from the front lines.

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