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    Mar 28, 2016

    On this bus, smoking can get you whipped


    IF YOU think your job drains you and hardly gives you peace of mind, consider this scenario.

    "Raqa! Manbij! Al-Bab!" drivers call out at a bus station in Beirut looking for passengers to make a perilous journey to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group strongholds in Syria.

    "Just before we reach the first Daesh checkpoint, everyone throws out their cigarettes," says Abu Ali, a bus driver in his 40s, using a derogatory Arabic name for ISIS.

    "And we spray perfume in the bus so that they can't smell the tobacco, otherwise we'll be whipped!" he adds with concern, as he prepares to travel to Manbij in northern Syria.

    The jihadists, who apply their own extreme interpretation of Islam in areas of Syria and Iraq that they have seized since 2013, do more than just inspect the bus for cigarettes.

    "They even smell our hands to make sure we haven't smoked," says Jawad, another bus driver.

    Standing near his bus at the Charles Helou station near the harbour, another driver begs Agence France-Presse journalists not to film his face or his vehicle's number plate.

    "These people are dangerous, they can recognise the bus even from the most minor detail," says the terrified man.

    The buses, which leave from a bus station located in one of Beirut's busiest districts, are a rare link between ISIS-held turf in Syria and the outside world.

    Since ISIS began conquering swathes of Syria in 2013, the buses have made two journeys a week to areas under the jihadists' grip, often with no more than three passengers on each trip.

    In cities like Raqa, the ISIS de facto capital in northern Syria, and Al-Bab to the west, residents are banned from smoking or wearing clothes deemed inappropriate under the jihadists' interpretation of shariah law.

    "Women passengers always carry a full-face veil and put it on before we reach the first ISIS checkpoint" on the highway linking Dmeir near Damascus to the ancient city of Palmyra, Abu Ali says.

    Men must roll up their trousers to bare their ankles, also in line with ISIS rules on dressing.

    Most of the passengers are Syrians going home to towns and cities that have fallen to ISIS, taking along food, medicine and cash for their families.

    The drivers also act as delivery men, taking with them goods that are no longer available in parts of war-torn Syria.

    "We take coffee, Nescafe, toys and clothes for the children," says Mohammed, a driver back in Beirut from Manbij.

    Abu Ali says the drivers also carry with them packets of sugar, which have become very expensive.

    But "mortadella (cold cuts) is strictly forbidden because (ISIS fighters) can't be sure it's halal even if the packaging says it is".

    On this frightening journey to jihadist-held turf, religious diversity is no longer welcome.

    "Before, our company would take members of the Assyrian, Syriac, Kurdish and Christian communities.

    "Today, none of them can come on board," Jawad says.

    Marwan Zouro, a 55-year-old Kurdish labourer, says he would have to go to Damascus first, and then take a flight to his home city, Qamishli, in north-eastern Syria.

    The journey is also made life-threatening by frequent fighting and air raids by the regime, Russia and the United States-led coalition on areas along the way.

    "Before the war, it took us four hours to make this journey; now, the route is 24 hours long," Abu Ali says.

    The buses leave from Beirut and pass through Damascus and Dmeir before reaching Palmyra in eastern Syria.

    The vehicles then head north-west towards Raqa, Manbij, Maskana and Al-Bab near Turkey.

    "When the fighting is fierce, the regime doesn't let us through and we are forced to spend one or two nights on the road before we can continue on our journey," Abu Ali notes with a tired shrug.

    And, now, do you still think your job is hellish?