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IraqSide:Conflict
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Highways of Death: Survivor Stories
Death-Defying Taxi Drivers Run Gauntlet Hundreds of Times
By NIR ROSEN 12/13/2006 3:39 PM ET
As thousands of Iraqis flee Iraq each day, most often by highways to Jordan or Syria, they face death even on the roads. I met with three Iraqi taxi drivers in downtown Amman, Jordan as they were resting between jobs. One driver, a Shia from Diwaniya, had been working the same route since 1997.

He and his two friends laughed when I asked them how many drivers they knew had been killed since the war. He claimed to know at least 25 drivers who had been killed in the last year alone. Most often, he explained, they and their passengers were killed "ala hawiya," or because of their identity cards, because they were Shia passing through the treacherous Sunni-dominated Anbar province on their way to a better life. Sometimes the taxis were followed by cars who attacked them, other times they were stopped by armed men at roadblocks.

A week before, a bus returning from Syria, presumably full of Shias who had gone on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Zeinab in Damascus was attacked and burned. He himself had been recently robbed on the road, losing his money and mobile phone. "All Iraq is taslib," he said, or robbery, "from south to north, it's all taslib." He estimated that he knew up to 700 people who had been killed since the war. He no longer supported Muqtada al Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army. "When the Mahdi Army fought the Americans," he said, "I supported them. Now they fight a civil war so its not Muqawama Sharifa (honorable resistance)."

He added that Iraq had no history of sectarian wars and noted that previously Sunni fighters from Falluja had helped Shia fighters from Najaf against the Americans. In the past, Shias had helped the Sunni resistance, now "there is no hope for peace in Iraq." He blamed "rijal al din" or the religious leaders, for the civil war.

Abu Rami, the owner of the taxi company claimed that he had been robbed four or five times on the same road. Highway robbers had even made off with his car once. He claimed to know 100 drivers who had been killed. Some were killed in sectarian attacks and others in robberies. "We do it just to live," he said, explaining why they took the risks they did.

Abu Rami had temporarily stopped driving to Amman and switched to driving down south to Basra but then the British military shot up his car and he abandoned that route. Abu Rami believed he knew more than 500 people who had been killed in Iraq since the war. Abu Rami had once had up to 50 drivers working for him, but now he only had four or five, due to the increased risks. A week before, two of his drivers had been killed with five of their passengers on the road to Amman. Their bodies and their charred vehicles were still on the road, one week later, when I met him.

Abu Ahmad, another driver, was also a Shia from Diwaniya, who had married a Sunni from Ramadi and lived there until recently, when it became too dangerous for a Shia there. Abu Ahmad's brother had moved to Jordan, but following a visit to Iraq the Jordanians refused to let them back in. Abu Ahmad had taken all their belongings for storage in his home. He told me that the Jordanians often turned Iraqi refugees away, and in fact there is also a sign on the Jordanian border warning that all men between the ages of 18 to 35 are prohibited to enter Jordan. Iraqi families often flee to Jordan with none of their belongings so as to avoid being turned away by the Jordanians, who are now wary of more Iraqi refugees.

When refugees are turned away they often have to pay their driver to take them back. Abu Ahmad expressed wonder with how cheap life had become in Iraq. He recounted recently smoking a nargila, or water pipe, in Baghdad's Kadhmiya district, and he saw children playing in a park near a dead body, covered with a blanket. People drank tea and children played, he said, and everybody ignored the dead body. None of the drivers thought Iraq would ever return to the way it had once been. They all supported the resistance but not those who engaged in sectarian killings.

Prices:

A GMC from Baghdad to Amman that holds six passengers costs $600, or $100 for each passenger. In late 2003 I took one from the Sharji market area with other Iraqis and we each paid $35. A sedan, nicknamed a "dolphin," by Iraqis because of its shape, that typically holds three passengers costs $300, or $100 for each passenger. In 2004, I paid $100 for such a ride. The three drivers explained that the price increase was due both to the security risks and the increase in gasoline prices. "Otherwise I'm risking my life for nothing," said one of them. A tank of gas now costs 125,000 iraqi dinars, or 5,000 a liter, when a year before it was 1,000 a liter.

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