Young Syrians turn to bikes to navigate war-torn Damascus

 
A group of young Damascus residents has launched a campaign to encourage the use of bicycles. Such a scheme in a country that has endured a brutal conflict for over two and a half years may surprise many, but our Observer says it is in fact in response to the constraints caused by war.
 
Our Observer tells us that travelling by car or using public transport has become unbearable given the current security situation, whereas riding a bike is the best way to ensure you arrive on time due to the capital’s numerous military roadblocks.
 
“You need a bike” is the slogan the students chose to encourage citizens leave behind Damascus’ overcrowded buses.
 
On their Facebook page, they invite cyclists to post photos of themselves on bicycles to help spread the word.
 
 
 
Campaign poster
Contributors

“Today, you can spend an hour an a half on a bus for a trip that used to take 10 minutes”

Abdulmajeed is an architecture student at the University of Damascus and one of the campaign’s members.
 
The bicycle is not at all a familiar mode of transport in Syria, it’s not even a common sport. In general, only residents of Damascus’ old town ride bikes because the alleyways there are too narrow for cars to go through.

Since the start of the crisis, roadblocks have multiplied in and around the capital, creating monstrous traffic jams. You can spend an hour and a half on a bus for a trip that used to take 10 minutes. So a year and a half ago, with a group of friends at the University of Damascus, we had the idea of swapping buses for bikes. It’s more practical and pleasant, and we wanted to spread the movement by creating a Facebook page. With the risk of attacks rising recently, security at roadblocks have been strengthened, and our idea has seen quite successful. A lot of the cyclists live in the inner suburbs of Damascus and study or work in the city centre, so they need to go through the checkpoints surrounding the capital.
 
Two friends on bikes in the old town of Damascus
 
“It’s our way of dealing with the crisis”
 
At the beginning, security forces at the roadblocks harassed or mocked us. Some of our classmates even had their bicycles confiscated under the pretext that riding bikes was forbidden, even though no law stipulates this. But as the number of cyclists in Damascus grew and the local press started talking about it, the police and the military ended up accepting the movement and stopped bothering us. As well, this campaign has helped to bring about a change in mentality with regards to women. Up until recently, Syrian society frowned on women riding bikes. Certainly there are those who continue to harass them, but we have received numerous messages from young women, even those wearing veils, who now ride their bikes every day to go to university.
 
Only the privileged classes in society have adopted the bicycle because prices have exploded with the conflict. Today, a new bike costs between 12,000 and 20,000 Syrian Lira [between 63 and 105 Euros]. Contrary to what foreigners may think, it’s absolutely not a misguided due to the security situation in this country. No one thinks of a cyclist as a sporty guy or an environmentalist, but simply as a Syrian who doesn’t want to waste time and who is trying to carry on amid  the crisis. Because in this sort of situation, you need a bike!
 
A university teacher who goes to work with a bike says she borrowed it from her building’s caretaker.
Photo showing this Damascus student’s first time on a bike

Post written with France 24 journalist Sarra Grira (@SarraGrira)

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