First-Person Friday: Car Trouble in Syria

First-Person Friday: Car Trouble in Syria

By Stephen Starr

A Syrian man drives a car in the center of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on March 28, 2013. More than 70,000 people have died in Syria's two-year conflict, the UN says.
SourceBulent Kilic/AFP/Getty


Because not everyone wants a brand-new car.

By Stephen Starr

Stephen Starr is a journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of  Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.

Buying a car was a big deal in Syria. The badge on the bonnet was the mark of who you were and what you’d achieved in life. Next to the iPhone and pack of Marlboros, one’s car keys were prominently displayed. Most Syrians couldn’t afford cars, and that’s why owning one was such a big deal for the rest — the nouveau riche or those with ties to the regime.

The revolt was six months old when I bought mine, a brand-new Renault Duster. It was a small, silver SUV with a black body kit. There was a stand-out reason for the purchase: As I lived in a town 18 miles from Syria’s capital, Damascus, relying on buses to get to interviews and to spot anti-government demonstrations in the city had become too dangerous.

You see, it was Syria’s poor, the rural, who started the uprising against a brutal regime that has left more than 190,000 people dead and a region aflame. It was they who relied on buses to get around. At the government checkpoints surrounding Damascus, it was the bus passengers who were stopped and had their identification meticulously looked over.

Before getting into my car every morning, I would bend down to check if someone had attached something explosive underneath.

Normally a soldier would take the IDs from passengers and call out their names to a second soldier reading names from a list. If no one on the bus matched his list of names, the bus could pass. If someone’s name cropped up, it meant that individual may never be seen alive again.

Those who drove cars — who could afford their own private means of transport — were less likely to have hated the regime and, as such, were less likely to be stopped at checkpoints.

But owning a car didn’t much make my life better. Pulling into a Damascus mall to buy groceries days after a car bomb had killed scores of civilians in another part of the city, I was stopped by private security guards who checked the car’s undercarriage for explosives with a mirror.

Soon I began doing the same.

Before getting into my car every morning, I would bend down to see if someone had attached something explosive underneath. With the Syrian government claiming at every opportunity in 2011 that “foreign terrorists” were responsible for the then-regular bombing of innocent civilians in the city, why wouldn’t they claim the same thing had happened to a pesky foreign journalist?

I’d then hold my breath and close my eyes as I turned the key in the ignition.

Many Syrian friends would say such precautions were unnecessary. None of them did the same. I also changed my email address every week to avoid detection from the authorities and interviewed activists in their homes, often just yards from government prisons and security branches.

That, and the fact that I was writing and filing reports of the unrest to newspapers in the U.S., London and elsewhere, probably did little to ease my paranoia. But my concerns pale in comparison with what was happening all around.

Syria has become the defining humanitarian disaster of the postwar world: More than 190,000 people dead, 3 million refugees and counting, and almost 8 million people internally displaced. Aid agencies say 10 million Syrians are in need of help every day. Today, those figures are exactly that — numbers — not men, women or children. There’s little to suggest anything will change soon.

I left Syria in 2012 following a particularly terrifying assignment that brought me face to face with the mutilated bodies of civilians who protested in a government-controlled neighborhood, but it’s been difficult to really leave.

I sold the Renault Duster to a cancer researcher in 2012. I’m told she regrets buying it since it attracts attention from kidnappers and gangs.

Syria has been perpetually in the headlines ever since. I’m regularly called upon by television and radio producers to discuss a country I no longer recognize. There was no Islamic State group, no beheadings, no chemical attacks in the Syria that I knew. But in Istanbul, where I live, Syrian Arabic is the most common language of the street beggar. It’s nice to hear a familiar language, but not on these terms.

cars near the hills of the Syrian border

With the hills of Syrian rolling in the background, a group of men share watermelon at a black market car dealership.

I keep in touch with friends who, unsurprisingly, care little about politics and international diplomacy. Their worries surround how many hours of electricity they’ll get today, where they’ll get the money to pay taxi drivers to take their kids to school every morning and if they’ll return safely in the afternoon, since public transportation has broken down.

I managed to sell the Renault Duster to a cancer researcher in 2012. The deal was done through mutual friends who convinced the buyer that despite the fact that the country was plunging into all-out war and the Syrian pound free-falling, the car would retain its value when little else would. I’m told she regrets buying it since it attracts attention from potential kidnappers and gangs.

The Renault dealership where I bought the car has since been gutted, and from what Facebook tells me, the man who sold it to me has escaped to Baghdad. Baghdad!

I spend much of my time today pitching article ideas about jellyfish, pollution and food issues. I don’t want for wheels today, as journalists in Istanbul get free access to public transportation. And though the Renault Duster is all over the streets here, it’s not a car I’ll be sitting in anytime soon. 

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